A 17th-century rosh yeshiva

R. Asenath Barazani of Kurdistan: The first Orthodox woman rabbi.

Woman with Torah 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Woman with Torah 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When an Orthodox woman expresses interest in becoming ordained, the question of precedent invariably arises: Has there ever been a woman who achieved this status? Might there be a precedent to justify and upon which to base such an unusual decision? Much to the surprise or perhaps chagrin of some, the answer is in the affirmative: R. Asenath Barazani of Kurdistan.
Asenath was the daughter of the eminent rabbi Shmuel b. Netanel Halevi (1560?-1625/35?), who was a scholar and mystic with a large following. Her father devoted himself to raising the level of scholarship in Kurdistan and produced rabbinic leaders by founding a successful yeshiva in Mosul. His only daughter was provided with a serious Torah education, as she tells us: “I grew up on the laps of scholars, anchored to my father of blessed memory.
I was never taught any work but sacred study.”
Asenath married her father’s most outstanding disciple, R. Jacob Mizrahi.
The description she presents regarding the conditions of her marriage is awe inspiring: “And he [my father] pledged my partner never to allow me to engage in work, and thus he did as he was commanded.” While we have no idea if this was a verbal commitment or a condition actually included in her ketuba, it is a unique and admirable act on the part of the bride’s father.
R. Mizrahi became the rosh yeshiva after his father-in law’s death, but was so steeped in his studies that Asenath stepped in, teaching in his stead.
When R. Mizrahi died, his widow naturally took upon herself all the responsibilities entailed in running a yeshiva; the transition seems to have been painless. Like her father, she requested support and funding for the yeshiva from within Kurdistan as well as from abroad. Her letters (see Jacob Mann, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature I, 1972) reflect her erudition and mastery of Torah, Talmud, midrash, Kabbala and Hebrew. In them, she describes her financial woes, explaining that she did not deem it appropriate to travel about in search of financial support on her own.
One recently discovered manuscript (see Uri Melammed and R. Levine Melammed, Pe’amim 82 [2000]) informs us of the intricacies involved when dealing with contributions and unreliable middlemen. Extant letters written to her by colleagues refer to her as master, rabbi and teacher.
As the head of a reputable yeshiva, she was accorded the highest respect by her peers.
A slightly different image was projected within her community. Abraham Ben-Ya’acov recorded stories about her that appeared in amulets, presumably because she possessed supernatural powers. One presents her as a wise and learned miracle-working kabbalist whose successful petitions limited her fertility to bearing only two children, a male and a female, so that she could then continue her studies in a pure state. (In reality, she had a son and a number of daughters.) Another story states that she was extremely attractive. A passerby noticed her hanging up laundry and entered her home, harboring evil intentions.
She invoked the appropriate holy names, causing him to be immobilized on the spot. On the following day, the local magistrate was alerted to the situation; Asenath eventually agreed to release the intruder providing he would be punished by hanging. We, however, know for a fact that she could not have been hanging laundry because, after all, she was exempt from housework.
One can see how difficult it was for the masses, despite their respect for her, to refrain from commenting on the sexuality of a female scholar.
Nevertheless, she seems to have been highly respected by her contemporaries.
The fact that the community of Baghdad asked her to provide them with a scholar speaks for itself; she sent her son Samuel, representing the third generation of this scholarly family. Asenath Barazani was not only a learned rabbi, but a true rosh yeshiva who, as did her father, prepared a new generation of scholars to perpetuate the teaching of Torah.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women.