While the debate rages on regarding the Modern Orthodox ordination of women rabbis and as controversy swirls around the “Women of the Wall,” it is important to investigate the life of Hannah Rachel Webermacher, known as the “Maid of Ludomir.” Hannah Rachel is not a harbinger of women rabbis or women’s prayer groups but she is an example of a woman who achieved great power and a great following and, while not a Rebbe, fulfilled many of the tzaddik’s functions during her fascinating life.
Hannah Rachel was born in Ludomir in Ukraine around 1805. Hasidism was in its early stages and the charisma of the individual rebbe had not yet been supplanted by the reality of Hasidic dynasties and the institutionalization of the Hasidic world. This young woman was known early on for her piety and her wearing of the fringes of the tzizit. She studied diligently, mastering Midrash, Aggadah, and the ethical works of Jewish tradition. She had been promised a young man to marry earlier in her life but rejected this match and retreated into a secluded life of meditation and the recitation of Psalms. After undergoing a serious illness, she experienced a religious ecstasy that led her to don a tallit and to don tefillin during her weekday prayers. She actually wore the tallit and phylacteries all day. After the death of her father, she recited the Kaddish prayer publicly in the synagogue, a practice unusual for women at the time.
In time, Hannah Rachel’s piety and her knowledge garnered her a following. As described by scholar Michael Kaufman in his study of women in Jewish tradition, Hannah Rachel’s Hasidim built a synagogue for her and a small apartment adjoining it. She first began to teach women alone but eventually men began attending her lessons. For the third Sabbath meal before the end of Shabbat, Hannah Rachel would deliver a shiur on Hasidic thought, mysticism and ethics. Her followers were both women and men.
Hannah Rachel’s fame spread and she became known as the “Maid of Ludomir,” dedicated to Jewish spirituality and ethics yet unmarried. Jews, including teachers and rabbis, flocked to Ludomir to receive lessons and advice from a woman who was not a rebbe but, in many ways, fulfilled the role of the tzaddik as the intercessor between God and the Hasid. She blessed her visitors and provided counsel to those who followed her in much the same way as any other Rebbe.
Hannah Rachel eventually married at the late age of 40 but the marriage ended in divorce, likely because of the Maid of Ludomir’s obsession with piety and her unique role and personality. After this, her popularity declined. Yet, she now moved on to a new mission, to immerse herself in Kabbalah and by doing so bring the Messiah. She continued this mission in the last years of her life after making Aliya to Eretz Yisrael. She died in 1892. While biographies have been written about this unusual women, she has been forgotten by most of the Jewish world. Her charisma and piety are an inspiration and serve as a model for Jewish women and men today. Her story raises many questions about the role of the Jewish woman in the public domain of Jewish life and as teachers of Torah to the Jewish masses. Her life remains a fascinating one. She was ahead of her time.