Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert

International scholar who researched early Chasidism and the role of gender in Jewish mysticism


The international world of Jewish studies has lost one of its most prominent luminaries with the passing of Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert, at the age of 74.  She headed the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London for the last 10 years, but was closely associated with it for over half a century.

Her personal charisma brought her close friendships among colleagues and students,  and within a day of her passing over 30 academics in Israel and the USA placed an advertisement in Ha’aretz mourning her loss. 

Professor Sacha Stern, who succeeds her at UCL, describes her as “the life and soul of the Department -- Her charismatic and inspiring leadership raised the Department to its current internationally high standing. She was expert in all areas of Jewish studies,  and made paradigm-shifting contributions to the study of Jewish mysticism, Sabbateanism and Chasidism. 
Ada (as she was known by all) was born in Tel Aviv, the daughter of Alma, a Bulgarian pianist, trained in Vienna, who had reached Mandate Palestine in 1939,  and Zalman Rapoport from Berdichev,  who came to Ottoman Palestine in 1914 as a child.  A family friend, Shmuel Abba Horodezky (1871-1957), descendant of Chasidic leaders and scholar of Chasidism and Kabbalah, was probably Ada’s first visible link with her future vocation. Later she would revise Horodecky’s views on the role of the woman in Chasidism.

Her father was a qualified agronomist and the family moved to Brussels where he represented Israeli agricultural interests to the EEC. After Israeli military service Ada came to London in 1965 to pursue a BA course in Jewish History at UCL, graduating with first class honours. She then studied for a PhD on the subject of Bratslav Chasidism, under Professor Joseph G. Weiss, a former student of Gershom Scholem.  At this point I met her, having joined the department as an undergraduate, with a strong interest in Bratslav. She eventually became a close friend of my family.

Weiss was a deeply spiritual figure, fascinated by the radical and complex Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who died in  1810, and his focus on paradox in Judaism.  After his death in 1969, Ada gained her PhD with Professor Chimen Abramsky as supervisor.  Her earliest published articles were on Bratslav Chasidism.  

In her long career as a leading Chasidic scholar, Ada taught first at the Oriental Institute in Oxford. She held visiting teaching positions and research fellowships at the Harvard Divinity School, Stanford University, the Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.  

But her longest and most prominent institutional role was at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL, which she headed from 2002-2012 until she retired. She helped establish its positive, warm, accepting atmosphere, maintained by her successor, Professor Sacha Stern.  Ada was widely respected and loved, especially by her doctoral students despite her copious sharp comments on their essays and draft chapters.

Several volumes she co-edited with colleagues express her kindness, love and fellowship. With  Steve Zipperstein she produced Jewish History Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky (1998).  When Michael Weitzman, Reader in Jewish Studies in the Department, tragically died in 1998, aged only 51,  Ada helped edit with Gillian Greenberg, two volumes in his memory.  Recently she co-edited with Professor Marcin Wodzinski, a volume of essays on the religious life of eastern European Jewry,  to be published as  Volume 33 of Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry.
Ada’s research and writings concerned Chasidism in the 18th-20th centuries and the earlier Sabbatean movement, including the early structure of the Chasidic movement, and the role of gender in Jewish mysticism.  A seminal article (in the Abramsky volume) revised Horodezky’s idea that ‘women enjoyed complete equality in the Chasidic movement’ illustrated by the career of the Maid of Ludmir,  described as a female Chasidic Rebbe.  Ada claimed the ‘Maid’ was disregarded in her role as Rebbe by prominent male Chasidic leaders of the time.  

In her volume Hasidic Studies, Essays in History and Gender (Littman Library, 2018) she wrote two significant articles on the role of women in Chabad, showing how each of the last three Lubavitcher Rebbes made radical steps concerning women, first creating a female constituency in the community, then considering them Chasidim in their own right and eventually, she claimed, granting them the mystical status of Tsaddik.   

She also explored more radical aspects of gender and mysticism in her book Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816 (Littman Library, 2011) translated from the Hebrew by Deborah Greniman), which focused on the Sabbatean combination of sexual liberation of women and granting them the role of ‘prophets’.  

Ada drew contrasting people together and generously opened doors.  A conference which she organised at UCL in 1988 (Hasidism Reappraised, Littman Library, 1996) brought many of the movement’s leading ‘secular’ scholars together with ‘Charedi’ researchers such as Yehoshua Mondshine, Daniel Meijers and myself.  Ada transcended such distinctions, and helped others to transcend them as well.

Other activities included her presidency of the British Association of Jewish Studies, and her lengthy funded project, housed at the HJS Department, on the language of the Zohar.  She was also a distinctive president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, graciously accepting the position after the untimely death of Professor John Klier in 2007.   

Ada frequently participated in the Institute’s public events  and was involved with the now burgeoning realm of Jewish studies in contemporary Poland. Appropriately her extensive personal library of Chasidic works will be housed at the University of Wroclaw.  She had significant contacts with admired Chasidic contemporaries, such as Rabbi Shmuel Lew.

Ada’s final public academic act was organising a conference at UCL in September, 2019, commemorating 50 years since the passing of her old mentor and PhD supervisor Joseph G. Weiss, which was dedicated to his thought, life and teachings.  Again, an act of love.
A volume of essays in her honour, edited by colleagues and former students, is shortly to be published. Academic memorial events are being planned, in Britain and Israel.
Sadly, cancer cut short her life. She had an amicable relationship with her former husband Bill Albert, who lectured on economics at the University of East Anglia and became a popular author. She is survived by their daughter Maya, son Saul, daughter-in-law Selene and grandson Yshai. 

Dr  Naftali  Loewenthal

Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert: born October 26, 1945. Died June 18, 2020)

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