A Rebbetzin is not a Rabbi

I have been involved in a few conversations lately about a topic that really agitates me, so when I saw the premise used to prove the exact opposite, I simply couldn’t not say my piece publicly any longer.

A Rebbetzin is not a female Rabbi. Sorry Orthodox Jewry, but its just not reality.

While many Rebbetzins or Rabbanits  (not getting into the semantics on this one now, been there done that) do serve as leaders in their communities, many do not. While some have a high level of education, some do not. And on the flip side, while some women who want to be leaders in the community marry Rabbis, others do not. The premise is that all women who want to lead have to marry Rabbis, and that all Rabbis have to marry women who want to be leaders. This is not realistic and it is not fair.

In this recent opinion piece by Rabbi Dan Friedman posted on The Jewish Week, the author uses this assumption to reach a conclusion I agree with, I just wish I could agree with his process more. The fact of the matter is that there are indeed women serving in great leadership roles in the Orthodox world, there are women who are certified by programs in Israel and America to be religious/halachic leaders and there are those who have stepped up without a formal program backing them. That is a great thing to recognize and to share widely. The problem begins when we believe that reassigning a title or suggesting that one method should be good enough for everyone will be the solution. Its not.

For some women, that is the level of religious and communal leadership that works for them. However, that it is good for a portion of the population doesn’t inherently mean that it is good for everyone. We have to allow women to find ways to lead that are personally meaningful – be it a a Rebbetzin, Jewish educator, communal worker, yoetzet halacha, or full fledged member of the clergy*.

We no longer tell girls who dream of working in the medical profession than being a nurse is “close enough” to being a doctor, so why should those who dream of working in the religious world settle for “close enough”? If women are able to learn at the level of men, why limit their professional advancement to who they marry?

*I said clergy so as to leave the semantics question out of it. I don’t think what the title is matters as much as giving women formal training to serve in these functions.

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9 thoughts on “A Rebbetzin is not a Rabbi

  1. By using the word clergy, saying it doesn’t matter the title, just the role, I think you’re ignoring the realities. After all, my friend who is a physician’s assistant does everything an md does in her ER – but it’s not the same as being a doctor, not really. It’s not an issue of semantics – people react to our ritual director differently from any of our 4 rabbis, and have different expectations – based on the title. An equal title is important for showing equal status. If being a nurse is not “close enough” to a doctor, then how is a “non-rabbi” title for a woman equal to a rabbi? Mind you, having the title is still not enough, as I believe there is still far too much discrimination against women rabbis, but it’s a step closer to a more equal role.

    • I totally see and hear where you are coming from, but I think it is too much too fast for contemporary Orthodoxy. I think having more women being empowered to learn and then entering the world with a consistent title (ie Maharat) that means something, is a solid step in the right direction and helps to expand the conversation about what roles are available for women who want to be spiritual leaders without having to marry one (as the article and conversations which led to the post imply).

  2. There was a time where the letters or title in front of one’s name didn’t matter. Moshe wasn’t a rav and neither was Avraham. These people were known based on what their reputations were and what they actually DID, not what piece of paper they had or years of study happened. As far as I know, the “Rabbeinu” and “Avinu” titles were given long after they passed away. I kind of wish we could go back to that.

    Doctors can be quacks. Rabbis can be horrible human beings. Yes, these labels do give us a sense of who this person might be, but often we are blinded by them.

    I agree that if we were to continue this trend of caring about these letters and titles, then orthodox women should be able to get some sort of title that deems them a halachic and spiritual leader. But I think we would be just adding to the problem. The women that I call my mentors aren’t necessarily rebbetzins. I made them my teachers because of who they are and what they know, not the title they have (or their husband).

    I think this is why pirkei avot tells us to “make for ourselves a teacher”, not to just “find” one. We need to stop being blinded by glitzy titles and start valuing our spiritual leaders based on how hard they have worked on themselves and what they give to the community. Rabbis are a dime a dozen these days, and unfortunately, this title often doesn’t say much about the person.

    Anyway, this is longer than I intended it to be and is probably controversial – maybe I should make a post about it!

    • I am glad you had a long response! I love when my posts get people thinking. Again, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am glad to be a part of a discussion as we work to figure out the balance between the societal need for some sort of title and the learning and midot that go along with it.

  3. I am torn here :

    – Without taking a deep breath, I would say giving titles to the women who want to have a leadership position in the religious world is really important and would reinforce them. That’s true. On a conference when you read that Rabbi Dr A will talk that Rav B will talk that Dr C will talk and that Mrs D will talk… Mrs D won’t have that much credit at the beginning, at least here in France…Giving a title to women who spent several years learning and accumulated knowledge (and often on a high level) deserve to get some credit that is given by the title. By having a title they will be taken seriously by communities and be able to define their place and their role easily.

    – But at the same time I can relate on what Andrea Grinberg wrote : a title doesn’t sharp a person. You can have a lot of titles (being a rav and a Dr or a Dr and a Pr or a rav Dr Pr) it doesn’t necessiraly mean that you’re reliable or that you do good. On the contrary someone who doesn’t necessiraly possed those titles can be reliable and be more accurate to educate people on similar topics.

    I am convinced that women as leaders and educators bring a lot into the world, I have seen it at Nishmat and I agree a real place has to be created for those women but I can only state that so far the orthodox world has still to reflect on the subject so those women can have a career in the jewish education field.

    PS : I hope I was clear… :)

  4. And on the flip side, a rabbi isn’t a rebbetzin (although I am tempted to write a follow up somewhere about dual-clergy familes entitled “When the Rebbetzin is a Rabbi”). It’s hard to tell people what to call me in Hebrew (and sometimes even in English), because they want to call me rabbanit, and I’m sorry, until my husband gets smicha next year, that isn’t accurate, and it doesn’t reflect the work that I’ve done, the Torah that I’ve learned, or the position that I hold. I’m not so into titles, I don’t want to be stuck-up or self-centered, but in a professional context, I’m doing that work because I have the training, not because my husband does (although I happen to think that he’s brilliant, and will be a fabulous rabbi). Unless we’re training couples and not individuals, YCT’s wives’ club not-withstanding, being a rabbi and being a rebbetzin are different things, and while I hold both in high regard, they just don’t collate into the same training or role in a community/organization/etc. I’m with you, even starting from the opposite side of the idea, as it were.

  5. Pingback: Editing Frum Women out of Society | Kol B'Isha Erva

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