His/Her Story: Seeking a spiritual life for women

Sarah Rebecca Rachel Leah Horowitz received an impressive education and became a scholar in her own right.

women of the wall 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
women of the wall 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the early 18th century (ca. 1720), a daughter was born into a family of eminent rabbinic scholars in Poland. The father, Jacob (Yokl b. Meir Halevi) Horowitz served as a rabbi in Bolechow, Brody and Gross-Glogau, and three or four of his sons followed suit. Perhaps because her parents were unable to decide which of the matriarchs was the most beloved, this daughter was named after all four of them. It comes as no surprise to learn that upon reaching marriageable age, the spouse chosen for her was Shabbetai, a learned rabbi later appointed head of the rabbinical court in Krasnik.
Sarah Rebecca Rachel Leah Horowitz received an impressive education and became a scholar in her own right. While Yiddish was her lingua franca, her studies included Hebrew and Aramaic; she was also exposed to kabbalistic texts. Leah, as she was known, became well acquainted with and attracted to mystical concepts and images. As a result, one of her goals was to transfer these images to make women’s prayers more significant.
In the memoirs recorded by Dov of Bolechow, the author refers to being sent to the head of the rabbinic court for extra lessons in Talmud on Shabbat afternoons. The pre-bar mitzva boy discovered that Rabbi Mordechai’s sister (and husband) were living with the rabbi at this time. He then describes his learning experience not with the assigned teacher, but with Leah Horowitz, who, in his eyes, was both modest and learned. It seems that after pointing out to him which portion he was to study, the rabbi promptly fell asleep. When his sister noticed the desperation in the boy’s face, she asked him what he was supposed to learn. Without hesitating, Leah adroitly explained the appropriate biblical commentary or talmudic passage, reciting all the material by heart. When the rabbi awoke from his nap, the boy invariably displayed mastery of whatever portion he had been assigned.
Leah is best known for her composition of a tkhine, or Yiddish prayer for women, which she aptly named “The Matriarch’s Tkhine.” As explained by Chava Weissler in Voices of the Matriarchs (Beacon Press, 1998), this supplicatory prayer was divided into three parts: a two-page introduction in Hebrew about the significance of women’s prayer; an Aramaic piyut, or poem; and a Yiddish paraphrase of the poem. This prayer was to be recited on the Shabbat prior to the new month; its message was that prayer was potentially powerful provided that one displayed proper devotion. As a matter of fact, women’s prayer could bring about redemption as long as it was intended for the shechina (Godhead) rather than for oneself. The women were told that even their weeping had enormous potential, such as the power to hasten redemption. Leah was convinced that women were destined to be more than merely enablers of their husbands and sons; their lives were intended to be more meaningful.
There is a lovely description of Leah Horowitz’s repartee with Rabbi Tsvi Hirsch, the head of the rabbinical court of Berlin, that took place at a wedding celebration. While she and some other rabbis’ wives were involved in a talmudic discussion at their table, Hirsch, overhearing this discourse, remarked that male scholars always began their studies with a joke; he was curious as to the nature of the women’s jesting. Leah, without losing her composure, politely explained that the purpose of male jesting was to ward off Satan so that they could study Torah for its own sake; however, since women were studying voluntarily, Satan did not seek them out, as written in Proverbs (31:26): “She opens her mouth with wisdom.” Thus women can leap directly into the talmudic fray and forgo the distraction exercise that is incumbent upon the men.
Although Weissler is uncertain as to the veracity of this encounter, it is clearly in keeping with the impression left by Leah Horowitz: a sharp, dedicated scholar devoted to teaching women about prayer and spiritual power and utilizing their potential to the fullest.
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.