Q&A: Why Ask the Rebbetzin?

We were recently approached by the author of Coin Laundry, to respond to this recent post about the role of the rebbetzin*. I interpreted it slightly differently than Melissa, as this:

Why are they asking the Rebbetzin? Why do they think she’s qualified?

The simple explanation is that there is a cultural expectation that she will either be able to answer your question, be able to find the information you need, or be able to put you in touch with the right person, as well as that she will be discrete and competent.

Why this is the case is more complicated, of course. I’m going to try to focus a little bit on the historical development, since I think it sheds a little light and context on this. I also highly recommend a book, “The Rabbi’s Wife” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz, which is, as far as I know, the only work of it’s kind. It traces the modern development of the rabbi’s wife in the last 150 years or so. It’s not exactly the same as the communities you’re describing, but it does give a lot of useful insight.

The title of rebbetzin developed at a time when there weren’t a lot of educational opportunities for women, and what there was pretty much ended when you got married, which everyone had to do. These women, understandably, often married the men who were in the position they wished to be. Even in the liberal movements, there have only been mainstream female rabbis for just about forty years or so, which is a blink of an eye in Jewish history. So, interestingly enough, women in liberal congregations in the early 20th century were just as likely to be performing the functions described by the others who’ve answered your question as these Orthodox rebbetzins are today. Religiously educated women are becoming more and more common in the Orthodox world, however, and I’m curious what will happen in the future.

That curiosity is really what motivated me, at least, to start this blog. Partly it’s about feeling like I have something to say, but it’s also about the role of the modern rebbetzin, especially in the context of a tradition that is still very much battling over and with gender roles. For those in the communities that are more right-leaning than mine, it’s likely that they’re not facing these same issues just quite yet.

I’ll end with a story. A few weeks ago, I hosted a meeting of the rabbinical school’s wives club at our apartment. As the group of us squished into our small living room to hear the speaker, we all knew it was partially our own interest and partially our knowledge that if our husbands are to be congregational or Hillel rabbis, we will probably be involved in some way. And so, we learned about sexuality and halacha together, with that in the back of our minds. It was partially about us as strong, educated women – and partially about those future congregants, out there, somewhere.

As always, we’re always open to questions, comments and thoughts!

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5 thoughts on “Q&A: Why Ask the Rebbetzin?

  1. Before my husband became a rabbi and was just in rabbinical school, he used to say that I was a Rebbetzin before he became a rabbi. I get questions from the most unlikely places about the mose unlikely things, often because women feel more comfortable asking me as a woman or me as Aliza Hausman who also happens to be married to a rabbi. Many questions do not have much to do with Jewish law but more with pastoral counseling. Even so, I have a battalion of experts, including one at home who I consult for the particularly difficult questions either because they are out of my range of knowledge–it is not like I can download my husband’s learning via Bluetooth or USB cable though many assume we must have the same level of learning, not true–and others are just so sensitive that I know my mentors, both female and male, who have been dealing with similar questions for as long as I have lived or longer can help me help someone in need. Sometimes, the Rebbetzin seems more accessible and less scary to talk to and there is a lot you pick up by “osmosis” (a term I am well aware is often used incorrectly even in this case) by living with a rabbi, being friends with rabbis and their wives and being part of this world. I also recommend the same book. It is amazing there are not more like it but there are many reasons why people ask the Rebbetzin, sometimes the most simple one is as a relay system to the rabbi to avoid embarrassment.

    • Thanks, Aliza. I appreciate your perspective, especially about the different sort of questions you get versus your husband!

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece! As a kind-of-rebbetzin, I find it really interesting. Hope you don’t mind if I weigh in with some different viewpoints.

    “These women, understandably, often married the men who were in the position they wished to be.”
    Not sure which community you’re referring to, but the women in my history married scholars because it was a huge spiritual merit to tie your eternal future with Torah and build a family based on mutual reverence for that. Status has never been a respected Jewish goal.

    “Even in the liberal movements, there have only been mainstream female rabbis for just about forty years or so, which is a blink of an eye in Jewish history.”
    True, and that makes me feel that, if anything, I think the secular world has a lot more answering to do about women STILL not being treated equal (the best law job still going to men, women seriously underrepresented in politics, female rabbis having a hard time landing a pulpit) than the religious world, where there is a philosophy behind it. You may choose to agree or disagree with that philosophy, but at least it’s not unexplainable.

    “Religiously educated women are becoming more and more common in the Orthodox world.”
    Again, I’m not really sure what this means. Since the days of Sarah Scheneirer, Orthodox women have been educated – and again, the more religious a girl is, the more likely that she will have obtained a comprehensive Jewish education from preschool through post-high school. When I teach a class, I draw on my elementary, high school, and seminary education, as well as shiurim I attend, CD’s and tapes I’ve heard, and of course – my husband is an excellent resource.

    Thanks for this interesting topic 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments! A few thoughts on your insights.

      {“These women, understandably, often married the men who were in the position they wished to be.”
      Not sure which community you’re referring to, but the women in my history married scholars because it was a huge spiritual merit to tie your eternal future with Torah and build a family based on mutual reverence for that. Status has never been a respected Jewish goal.”}

      I didn’t mean status – I meant that these were women who were interested in being religious leaders found an outlet for that desire in being married to rabbis. Not that this was their only reason, either, but that it played into the choice. This was also seen in ministers wives as well, particularly in the 19th century.

      {“Even in the liberal movements, there have only been mainstream female rabbis for just about forty years or so, which is a blink of an eye in Jewish history.”
      True, and that makes me feel that, if anything, I think the secular world has a lot more answering to do about women STILL not being treated equal (the best law job still going to men, women seriously underrepresented in politics, female rabbis having a hard time landing a pulpit) than the religious world, where there is a philosophy behind it. You may choose to agree or disagree with that philosophy, but at least it’s not unexplainable.}

      You’re right that there’s a lot of work there still to be done – just look at high-level corporate offices or congress and the lack of women involvement. That’s another rant for another day, lol. But you’re right, the philosophy does exist in the religious community. It also is faces challenges as women gain more and more equality in the secular community, as imperfect as that equality might be.

      {“Religiously educated women are becoming more and more common in the Orthodox world.”
      Again, I’m not really sure what this means. Since the days of Sarah Scheneirer, Orthodox women have been educated – and again, the more religious a girl is, the more likely that she will have obtained a comprehensive Jewish education from preschool through post-high school. When I teach a class, I draw on my elementary, high school, and seminary education, as well as shiurim I attend, CD’s and tapes I’ve heard, and of course – my husband is an excellent resource.}

      I wasn’t clear here, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. I meant education of the kind that is similar to rabbinical education: high-level Talmud education equal to male students (even if done separately physically) which teaches women skills of halachic interpretation (i.e. the yoetzet halacha training programs) There has been a lot of religious education available to women for a while, but I meant a certain kind that hasn’t been around for that long and still isn’t particularly mainstream.

      Thanks again!

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