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Asenath Barzani

Judaism's First Woman Rabbi

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While the 1935 ordination of Regina Jonas in Berlin, Germany marked the first time in Jewish history that a woman was officially ordained a rabbi, some scholars consider Asenath Barzani, a 17th-century Kurdish Jew, to be Judaism's first woman rabbi.

Prior to the 20th century, rabbis were those perceived by their community to be able to interpret Jewish Law and able to teach Judaism. In addition, worthy successors to renowned rabbis were recognized as rabbis.

Asenath Barzani was famous throughout Kurdistan for her knowledge of the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law, was a main teacher in and the first female director of a men's yeshiva, and succeeded her father, the renowned Rabbi Samuel Barzani.

Early Years

Asenath Barzani, (Asnat Barzani) lived in Mosul, Iraq from 1590 to 1670.

Her father, Rabbi Samuel Ben Nathanel Halevi Barzani, was a renowned scholar and pious leader in Kurdistan. Dedicated to education, he traveled from town to town establishing yeshiviot.

When he was not traveling, he focused on educating his daughter. He taught her to study, memorize and contemplate Jewish text in an effort to make contact with God. He was a master of Kabbalah, and he taught the secrets of Jewish mysticism to his daughter.

To enable Asenath to focus on her studies, he insisted that she be sheltered and excused from the domestic work and social obligations of her contemporaries.

According to Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Asenath Barzani wrote: "Never in my life did I step outside my home. I was the daughter of the king of Israel...I was raised by scholars; I was pampered by my late father. He taught me no art or craft other than heavenly matters." (Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, The Receiving: Recovering Feminine Wisdom)

Marriage

When Asenath was betrothed to her cousin, Rabbi Jacob ben Abraham Mizrahi Amadiyah, Rabbi Barzani demanded that the wedding contract include the stipulation that his daughter "must never be troubled by housework" so she could continue to learn and teach.

Jacob became head of the yeshiva in Mosul, and Asenath taught in the same yeshiva. The couple had a son and daughter.

Jacob died at an early age, and the family experienced great economic struggle. Asenath decided to become head of the yeshiva until her son was old enough to become dean.

Thus, Asenath Barzani became the first female Rosh Yeshiva, the first woman to be dean and head teacher in a men's Talmudic academy, in Jewish history.

Her Father's Successor

After her father's death, Asenath took over many of his duties. In time, Asenath became known as the chief teacher of Torah in Kurdistan.

Asenath's practice of Kabbalah brought her fame. There are many Kurdish legends about the miracles she performed, such as this "A Flock of Angels" story. (Howard Schwartz, The Day the Rabbi Disappeared.)

In addition, she was a poet, with the unique ability at the time to write in Hebrew. Her poems are among the few examples of the early modern Hebrew texts written by women.

Asenath Barzani was called a Tanna'it, which means female Talmudic scholar. In fact, it is written that the term Tanna'it, the feminine form for a Talmudic scholar, was coined especially for her.

Rabbi

While she was called Tanna'it, some scholars today consider Asenath Barzani to be Judaism's first woman rabbi. These scholars believe the knowledge she attained and work she did qualify her for the title of rabbi.

Whether we call her Tanna'it Asenath Barzani or Rabbi Asenath Barzani, her legacy is empowering. Asenath demonstrated that Jewish women - even if they face obstacles such as unequal social status and poverty - can put aside the broom, invest in learning, and achieve greatness.

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