In my last post, I discussed the uses of dreamwork for Jewish women who are uncovering their own spiritual language. The protagonists of recorded Jewish dreams, from Joseph to the dream interpreters of the Talmud to the kabbalists, tend to be male. Yet there is a legacy of Jewish women dreaming, occasionally documented, and painstakingly uncovered by researchers. This hidden history offers us resources for understanding the women of the past, and for connecting to women in the present.
The Roman poet Juvenal (2nd. cent. CE) mocks a poor Jewish woman of his time for sitting under a tree and telling the meaning of dreams, calling her “high priestess with a tree as temple.” Much later in history, Hayyim Vital, the disciple of master kabbalist Isaac Luria, records in his diary that Jewish women in the city of Sfat (Jewish holy city in Galilee known as a center for Kabbalah) in the early 17th century were actively engaged (along with men) in recording, sharing, and interpreting dreams. Vital mainly records women’s dreams when the women dream about him! He saves these dreams from the dustbin of history, ironically, because he sees the dreams as prophecies of his greatness.
For example, Vital records the dream of a friend and patron, Rachel Aberlin. In the dream, Aberlin watches Vital eat a feast of vegetables at a table full of sacred books. Behind Vital, a fire rages, yet does not consume the pile of straw in which it burns. When Aberlin shares the dream, Vital understands this dream to be a manifestation of a biblical verse: “The house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Joseph flame, but the house of Esau shall be straw” (Obadiah 1:18). Aberlin, however, responds to Vital’s interpretation: “You quote me the words as they are written, but I see them as a reality.” (Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism, p. 106ff).
Vital sees the dream’s fire as his own spiritual fire, witnessed by Aberlin. Yet we might read the dream differently. In our dream of Aberlin’s dream, we might imagine that Aberlin’s dream encodes her experience of watching Vital consume the nourishment of sacred books, which she, as a woman, is denied. Yet, the dream suggests, the fire of revelation is behind Vital, eluding him. Within the dream and in waking life, Vital is focused on text, but Aberlin, like Moses, perceives the fire that does not consume. Aberlin, not Vital, is the prophet in the dream— and the waking Aberlin says so. Vital records the dream, without recognizing Aberlin’s implicit criticism of his way of knowing.
Continue reading “Stealing the Yarn: Jewish Women and the Art of Feminist Dreaming (Part 2) by Jill Hammer”