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Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 14Focusing on Jews in the Polish Borderlands$

Antony Polonsky

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9781874774693

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781874774693.001.0001

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Chava Weissler

Chava Weissler

Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women

Chapter:
Chava Weissler
Source:
Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 14
Author(s):

Norma Baumel Joseph

Publisher:
Liverpool University Press
DOI:10.3828/liverpool/9781874774693.003.0031

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Chava Weissler's book on the personal devotional prayers of early modern Jewish women, Voices of the Matriarchs. Blending previously published articles, new material, and important methodological insights, this book brings to the reader a fully developed picture of the context, concerns, and religious lives of a previously invisible group. It also raises serious questions regarding our ability to know about and understand the past. The chapter shows how the author is candid about her own purposes, reservations, loyalties, and aspirations. Throughout the book, the author presents distinct texts, often several concerning the same function, in order to portray the variety of religious personalities exposed in these Yiddish prayers.

Keywords:   book review, Voices of the Matriarchs, Chava Weissler, Yiddish prayers, devotional prayers, early modern Jewish women, religious personalities

Eagerly anticipated, Chava Weissler’s book on the personal devotional prayers of early modern Jewish women, Voices of the Matriarchs, does not disappoint. Blending previously published articles, new material, and important methodological insights, this lucid book brings to the reader a fully developed picture of the context, concerns, and religious lives of a previously invisible group. It also raises serious questions regarding our ability to know about and understand the past. Provocatively, the author is refreshingly candid about her own purposes, reservations, loyalties, and aspirations.

For almost two decades Chava Weissler has been exploring and revealing the religious world of Ashkenazi women—and non-learned men. The tkhines, Yiddish liturgical poems, proved to be a rich if difficult resource. Questions of function, purpose, agency, ritual location, religious erudition, and authorship are not easily deciphered. Often ignored by historians and religious practitioners alike, this material and Weissler’s wonderful exposition of it has challenged previous characterizations of west and east European Jewish life and opened a new page in our collective memory.

Weissler begins the book with a review of the complex historical framework of Jewish life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She provides a basic description of Jewish mysticism, profiling Lurianic kabbalah, Sabbatian messianism, and hasidism. This brief contextualization of the important movements and spiritual resources of the era is important in designating the critical forces influencing the tkhines and in making this book available to readers with diverse backgrounds.

The rest of the book is divided into three main parts. Part i introduces the tkhines properly and begins the quest for the ‘voices of the Matriarchs’. Those voices, we are warned, can be heard in authorship (not exclusively female) as well as in the (p.386) practice of prayer leaders (zogerke) and praying women. Chapter 1, the only totally new one in this section, reflects recent trends in understanding the literature of the period and the religious history of ordinary Jews. The divergence of western and eastern traditions is clearly explained, while the methodologically difficult question of authorship is introduced. Clearly, Weissler is in control of the material and uses it superbly to acquaint the reader with the liturgical issues, historical diversity, and women’s pietistic intensity.

Throughout the book the author presents distinct texts, often several concerning the same function, in order to inform us of the variety of religious personalities exposed in these Yiddish prayers. Her graceful translations and nuanced explanations facilitate our understanding of the construction of gender in Ashkenazi Judaism, which is the main theme of part i Each chapter poses new questions, carefully probing the study of gender and religion. Personally, I would like to hear more.

Rich with information and stimulating questions, part ii places the tkhines within the spiritual world of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ashkenazi Judaism. The challenge is to find the part played by women in the spiritual mysticism of the day by studying their liturgical activities. As in previous chapters, Weissler connects the tkhines to the classical Hebrew sources and movements, disclosing the transformations made in addressing women’s spirituality. In this section the historical development of the genre is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of biographical information about the authors Shifrah, wife of Rabbi Ephraim Segal, Sarah Rebecca Rachel Leah Horowitz (newly presented here), and Sarah bas Tovim.

The concluding part iii brings us to the twentieth century and new developments in women’s spirituality. Introducing previously unpublished information, Weissler shifts the focus to investigate the subsequent transformations of the tkhines and its impact on American Judaism. In this section the obstacles and ironies surrounding contemporary women’s prayers abound. Weissler finds newly published editions urging American Orthodox females to learn Yiddish so as to recite these tkhines. Of course these women, unlike their female ancestors, are the products of good Jewish educational institutions and are able to pray in Hebrew, the holy language, without translations. It is the Yiddish that they do not understand. It is also worthy of note that this dying literature was revived by feminist activists, innovators of the Conservative prayer-book, and nostalgic Orthodox pietists.

Weissler has serious concerns regarding the valorization of a separate women’s spirituality by so many disparate groups. The recasting of the tkhines into modern prayer often exaggerates the biological and embodied experiences of women. Contemporary feminist and Conservative liturgies are more personal and individualistic than the original tkhines. Appropriate misgivings with the category of domestic religion and the consequent evaluation of these prayers pervade chapter 9 and are not resolved. I found this discussion unclear and not fully articulated.

Chapter 10, perhaps the most revealing and demanding section, offers a challenging relational discourse: where does women’s religion fit? Whether on the (p.387) margins or centred, submissive or dominant, exceptional or ordinary, subversive or faithful, these tkhines are the texts of women’s religious lives. This is the source of history that cannot be denied—now that it has been decoded and revitalized for us by Chava Weissler.

Weissler’s writing style is easy yet stimulating to read. The scholar’s methodological questions are clear and pervasive but not invasive. The notes are a mine of information, although the absence of a proper bibliography is lamentable. Although there are bound to be differences of opinion regarding specific translations and other theoretical points, the book will surely be well received.

In a passionate conclusion, the author enters the text and asks painfully familiar questions. What does loyalty require? Loyalty to Judaism, gender, academia? Silence surely cannot be our only answer. With this book Chava Weissler has given Jewish women a voice—a series of voices, her own included. Whether in terms of bread-baking or candle-making, descriptions of menstrual rituals or the rapture of paradise, we can hear and begin to understand the religious lives of some of our mothers. Passionate and intimate with God, unashamed, and certainly part of the spiritual and intellectual world of Judaism, Voices of the Matriarchs speaks to me and for me.

Norma Baumel Joseph

Department of Religion, Concordia University