Rabbi Leah: Kabbalah by the Sea
Blog for Cheshvan 5778
We have just entered the month of Cheshvan, often referred to as “Mar Cheshvan”/ bitter Cheshvan because of its lack of holidays. While celebrations certainly lift us up, there is something to be said for dealing with adversity without it becoming bitterness. As I re-read the material now more available on the Rebbe of Ludmir, I am struck by the consistency of her life work, despite major obstacles.
Many of us have heard about the “Betulah”Hannah Rachel Werbemacher, know as an inspired Chasidic Rebbe in the mid 19th century Ukraine. Generations know the story of her falling into a grave (after the death of her mother and the absence of her fiancée) and emerging with what she described as a new soul that led her to take on the male religious obligations and teach in the manner of Chasidic rabbis of her time.
A Torah prodigy from youth, she studied advanced Jewish texts and shared her teachings with numerous followers who came to her “Shtibl”, the “Green Shul” for prayer, study and healing. As her popularity increased. she was opposed by the important rabbis of her day- including Mordechai of Tchernobyl, whose saintly father had foreseen her miraculous birth when he blessed her childless parents.
Yielding to pressure to marry, she did so very briefly, and got a Ghett/divorce after refusing to consummate the marriage. Most sources suggest that she lost her devotees once she was seen as a married woman, rather than a uniquely blessed Virgin ! Biographers then minimize the narrative of her life in Ludmir (for about twenty five years) still functioning as spiritual teacher and healer but without a congregation.
Considering the opposition to her work, that could have been a time of terrible loss and bitterness. Yet nothing in the record suggests that she did anything but what she had already done; namely study , pray and heal. I imagine that she continued to have female followers and that people came more privately for healings.
What we do have is more data on her life after about age fifty when she made “Aliyah” to the land of Israel/Palestine. In those days it was a dangerous and difficult journey, so I wonder if she re-married to have support on the trip. (her second marriage also ended in divorce, suggesting she was not interested in a conventional relationship)
Once in Jerusalem, she again re-emerged as spiritual teacher, especially for women, and was known for leading pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb on the New Moon. Her daily devotions at the Western Wall were also chronicled.
In 2004 her burial site on the Mount of Olives was finally found (a great story in itself) and restored through the efforts of Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan (Navah Tehilah. Jerusalem) and friends.
The most thorough documentation of her life and accomplishments was written in 2003 by Prof Nathaniel Deutsch of U.C. Santa Cruz - Entitled: “The Maiden of Ludmir. A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World”
An earlier short biography, by Rabbi Gershon Winkler, “They Called Her Rebbe” is still available on Amazon.