In 1980, Gershon Winkler, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote a novel about a clay robot created to protect Jews from anti-Semitic marauders. He wrote another the following year about spirit possession.
Within the small world of Orthodox Jewish fiction, "The Golem of Prague" and "Dybbuk"--both published by Judaica Press, a Brooklyn, N.Y., house known for its religious books--became bestsellers. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis accept that golems-- and dybbuks-- and other spirits, demons, evil eyes, omens and miracles can invade everyday life.
In his latest novel, however, Winkler has created a monster so ghastly as to outrage these scholars. "They Called Her Rebbe: The Maiden of Ludomir" is loosely based on the life of Chana Rochel Werbermacher, a 19th-Century Russian woman whose independent will, scholarly pursuits and refusal to marry made her a pariah among rabbinical authorities.
Her mastery of Jewish scholarship attracted the attention of the Rabbi of Chernobyl, who tried in vain to channel her energies into marriage. Upon the death of her father, she used her inheritance to build a one-room synagogue.
Claiming possession by a "new soul," she began wearing a prayer shawl and phylacteries, and gained followers attracted to her reputed healing powers. At 40, she succumbed to public pressure to marry, but quickly divorced. Werbermacher lost much of her following, was excommunicated and moved to Jerusalem.
Even today--a century after her death--Werbermacher inspires fear and loathing within some circles in the Orthodox community--which includes about 11% of the approximately 6 million Jews in the United States--and among the ultra-Orthodox, a small but vocal and influential segment of the Orthodox.
Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, who heads an ultra-Orthodox congregation in Far Rockaway, N.Y., characterizes the Werbermacher depicted in Winkler's book as "an insurgent Jewish mutant feminist." Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, editor of the monthly ultra-Orthodox Jewish Observer, calls the book "a distortion of history."
There is also support. A Brooklyn-based Orthodox magazine, Country Yossie, has featured the book on its bestseller list.
So far, the controversy has not spread beyond a limited area of New York and New Jersey. "They Called Her Rebbe" appears to have struck a chord with Orthodox--and even some Hasidic--women who call themselves Torah feminists.
"I recently attended a women's conference with 300 Orthodox middle-aged women," says women's activist Rivka Haut of Brooklyn, "and when I mentioned the book, many nodded their heads. The book has actually become what I've heard described as the ideal bat mitzvah gift. Torah feminists--Orthodox women committed to accommodating Jewish law--spend their lives being challenged and disapproved of. This book is about our lives."
It was an Orthodox Los Angeles woman, Miriam Adler Huttler, wife of Rabbi Reuven Huttler, who proposed to Winkler that he write about Werbermacher, and she wrote the introduction for the book.
The book's publication last November sparked the greatest furor within Agudath Israel, an international movement within the ultra-Orthodox community that spreads its views through educational events and facilities in the United States. Founded in 1912 to combat novelty and reform in Judaism, Agudah, as it is also called, discourages women from seeking formal religious training and dissuades them from other pursuits unrelated to child-rearing.
An informal boycott of the book was adopted at an Agudath Israel of America Thanksgiving retreat in New Jersey. The boycott was also espoused by Rabbi Menachem Manis Mandel, dean of the Yeshiva of Brooklyn.
Judaica owner Jack Goldman says he thinks an embargo of other Judaica Press publications has been suggested, but Mandel and Shapiro deny this. "There is no campaign I'm aware of. I wouldn't want to hurt him (Goldman) personally," says Mandel.
Their ire is for Winkler's novel. "The author calls this a 'historical novel,' " says Shapiro. "But a historical novel is an embellished version of a true story. This is not. This is a 135-page book cranked out of a few sketchy biographical notes. Winkler takes the little information we have--which says nothing about her, her philosophy or her life--and depicts her as having a specific philosophy, which in essence is his own '60s-style radical feminism."
Agudists also protest the book's oblique intimation that Werbermacher waged a struggle to reconcile her romantic yearnings and her piety.
Hasidic girls dress in modest attire befitting the 19th Century and lead protected, sexually segregated lives. Walled off from most Western pop-culture influences, they have little exposure to such concepts as romantic love.
"We bring up our children in a sheltered environment," says Wolpin. "There is a chapter in the book that says Werbermacher was forced into a pro forma marriage by public pressure but refused to have it consummated. You could have this discussed on the front page of the New York Times, but it will not be discussed in my home."
Bowing to Agudist pressures, some New York retailers either ceased stocking the book or sell it quietly without displaying it.
Store owner Aryeh Zach told Jewish Week newspaper he returned copies to the publisher despite brisk sales because the dean of a local Orthodox seminary told him to stop selling it. In a telephone interview, publisher Goldman said Zach had returned 70 copies.
Winkler is a rarity, a "circuit-riding" rabbi who lives in a cabin in the West Virginia hills. He comes out of his self-imposed isolation to minister to local federal prisoners and to Jewish students at the University of West Virginia.
In 1985, Winkler lived in the Angeles National Forest. On Fridays he would descend into the city to spend the Sabbath with Orthodox friends, including the Huttlers.
"Though Orthodox," Miriam Huttler recalls, "I was always interested in the challenge of being able to fulfill yourself as a woman within the confines of Halacha. I would look for role models, and while growing up I heard stories about Chana Rochel.
"With all respect to those rabbis who say she's barely a footnote in Jewish history, she's mentioned in many Hasidic books. It would be more correct to say that they don't want to acknowledge they know about her."
Ferreting out the facts of Werbermacher's life took Winkler several years, spent mostly at the University of Chicago and at Yeshiva University in New York.
In an effort to ensure historical accuracy and to accommodate the sensibilities of the Hasidic community, he and Goldman showed the manuscript to Wolpin, who highlighted several dozen passages he thought should be excised or altered. Goldman says each of Wolpin's suggestions was accepted.
Nevertheless, Wolpin became one of the book's harshest critics.
"Werbermacher is presented as having various ideas that may make sense in a 1990s, cutting-edge-of-feminism sense," he says. "But these ideas didn't exist back then.
"There always were, and probably always will be, women who engage in the study of Talmud because they have the intellectual ability and curiosity. Historically, however, it was not a subject of study for women in the formal sense."
The book has been distributed nationally to religious stores. Of the 7,000 copies printed, Goldman says, "I've sold a few thousand so far. I think I would have come close to selling them all. The initial reaction was it was selling briskly.
"Some 50 stores were carrying it," he says. "Ten percent have returned it."
Winkler says he is surprised by his book's harsh reception. "This lady was a threat because she had no man to give her credibility," he says. "There is an insecurity people are grappling with, particularly in this community, where the spiritual leaders are always male and the power of a Chana Rochel shakes the foundation of the status quo.
"I didn't mean to," he says, "but I've apparently resurrected not only her memory but some of the pain she experienced in her life."