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!

Q&A: Why Ask the Rebbetzin? – Mel’s Answer

We were recently approached by the author of Coin Laundry, to respond to this recent post about the role of the rebbetzin*.  At the end of the day, the questions is essentially this:

Why ask the Rebbetzin? How is she qualified to answer?

(This is a complex answer and sort of winds through a few topics. So, while I know what I want to say, I’m actually having a difficult time structuring it.)

For many people, rebbetzins are more approachable, more human, more real-life than their spouses.  Without the title, they become more accessible and are often engaging the community in a more direct and personable way – perhaps even working in different areas within the Jewish community.  When dealing with personal matters, they may be more approachable and have more worldly experience to provide.  When dealing with women’s issues (ie. head covering and taharat hamishpacha), they may be more relatable and have personal experiences and anecdotes to add to the halacha.  For some women, the questions they have around these topics are less about the halacha than about the practical applications.  As a future rebbetzin, I already am asked these sorts of question regularly and I only anticipate that their frequency will increase in the years to come.

For many Rabbinic families, they go through the process together on some level. In fact, rabbinical programs are beginning to notice this more and are starting to step up and offer various levels of programming and training for future rebbetzins as well as the future rabbis. And in other cases where this isn’t provided, the future rebbetzins have sought out their own learning somewhere along their path as well.  It is wrong to assume that just because a woman does not have smicha or an otherwise official title, she is not learned and able to answer halachic questions. I know that my path to being a rebbetzin is paved with education.

I have many more rebbetzin mentors than rabbis in my life.  One of whom told me that there are two ways to approach it: that you are a team that is prepared to help and engage your community however you are needed or that you are two individuals with your own career paths, where one is the rabbi and the other is clearly not.  For my husband and I, the former is the right fit.  We are a team in our life and will continue to be one as he enters the rabbinate and I whole-heartedly embrace being the rebbetzin.

*I intentionally ignored the mentioned response that it is the only position of authority for women in contemporary Orthodox Judaism as that is a totally different post. Perhaps someday I shall tackle that too.

Q&A: Baby wearing and head covering?

Post by Melissa

A good friend recently asked me the following question and I knew I had to come ask you all:

A friend of mine who likes to baby wear also covers her hair (scarves, generally). But kiddo is starting to pull. Any tips/tricks to keep head covered against baby hands?

Since I am not yet a mom, I am able to be intentional in my head coverings when I am going to be spending prolonged amount of time with kids.  I tend to wear the beret style hat/snoods which are easily adjustable as they get touched and pulled. However, I know many moms who wear tichels full time, so there has to be a trick, beyond just waiting for them to learn not to touch.

So dear readers, do you have any insights about how to keep little hands away from a covered head?

Friday Question: Do you…

This weeks question is inspired by something Melissa was dealing with recently.

If you otherwise may have your head uncovered at home, do you make sure to have your head covered while doing Jewish learning? Does this vary based on what type of learning you are doing?

MSG says: I make an attempt, however sometimes D and I have spontaneous learning as we come across something which inspires us to look up something or have a longer conversation about something we had learned earlier. I think I need to be more cognizant of this but really look forward to your responses on this one.

Friday Question: Do you…

We’re introducing a new segment of the blog — Friday Questions!  These will be random things which come in the blogosphere or our real lives which we want to get our readers feedback on.  If you have a question you’d like to get answers to, feel free to email Melissa (Melissa  at RedefiningRebbetzin dot com)

Our first question is inspired by a conversation Melissa had with fellow blogista, Hadassah Sabo Milner of In the Pink, today.

Do you always wear tights/nylons/socks? How do you feel about sandals in the summer or otherwise visible feet? Are there any stipulations to your feelings about these things?

MSG says (respectively): No! Love them! (I’m pretty sure Miriam wore sandals in the desert.) Very few, unless I’m in a setting where my not being in nylons will really make me feel uncomfortable for being outside the norm of the community, I’m not into them (though I do wear them for warmth in the winter, but that is a totally different question).

Meeting at the Well, Meeting in the Middle

post by Jessica

When R and I met, we were just two college students hanging out a Hillel. One of the first conversations I remember took place (appropriately) in the Hillel kitchen, when he was washing dishes and I was hanging around the door. He asked what I thought of the “little” Jewish community. I looked at him like he had grown a second head, and asked him where he thought I was from. He thought Chicago – but the truth is, the Hillel was the biggest Jewish community I’d belonged to since we left South Africa. We started a friendship on this basis, since he was a “townie” and I wasn’t from the big city.

Fast forward two years, and we start dating. His friends wonder what took him so long (one friend told him he thought we’d been dating for at least a month beforehand). My friends freaked out. I actually lost two friends over it, which I never thought possible. They objected that he wasn’t “right” for me, without ever seeing if we worked as a couple. I can understand, in a way.  He was a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor in the kitchen) and a member of the Orthodox minyan. I led Reform services more often than not, and gave the dvar Torah almost every week. On the surface, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

The thing was, our Judaism was what drew us to one another. We both actively engaged our Judaism, and meshed so well on so many other levels, that I think we both felt that it might be possible to make it work. We would go to Hillel on a Friday night, separate for services, eat dinner together and I would eat Shabbat lunch with his parents. It became more difficult when we started to talk about marriage, but in a way it was easier because we knew going in that there would be differences. We figured out first if I could have an Orthodox wedding and be comfortable with it, and we decided based on the information we found on the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) website that we probably could, as long as we found a rabbi willing to do it for us (which we did). At that point, we bought Two Jews Can Still be a Mixed Marriage. Although I’m not sure I appreciated all the answers, the book asked a lot of insightful questions that helped us think about the relationship now and down the road, which was incredibly useful.

However, I think that our most important efforts in working out our differences came after we made that commitment to one another. In Israel, we were trying to integrate into a new community while navigating a new phase in our relationship, and dealing with all these issues on a daily basis. I learned a lot about traditional Judaism – enough that I felt mostly comfortable with the lifestyle, although there were things that I was still having difficulties with. R learned to think about Judaism outside his own experience – especially as experienced by a woman. In the three years since then that we’ve been married, we’ve again figured out more about making this work – especially as we move towards another phase, that of having children.

Does your partner have to be the same observance level as you?

Post by Melissa

During Passover we asked for suggestions from our readers, and this was one which we felt particularly drawn to.  Jessica will have some particularly awesome insights on Monday – so be sure to watch for that.

Personally, I think it is important to view your Judaism similarly, whether or not you observe in the same way.  How central is your Judaism to your life?  Do you both have similar feelings about interacting with Shabbat or keeping Kosher?  Can you find Jewish meaning in the mundane, or not?

I know that I am extremely blessed to have found a man who views Judaism so similarly to me and who also practices similarly to me.  We are lucky – we know that.  However, I did date a lot of men, or chose not to date them, in the process of finding my match.  In fact, the last person I dated before D is a prime example of this question.  On our second date we had a long conversation about Kashrut and Shabbat.  Our current observance as well as our life aspirations for the same.  We had both been hurt in the past by people who did not see things on our wave length, so we wanted to be sure we saw it the same from the get-go.  While the relationship was not meant to be in the long run, we did have a great time and were able to relax knowing that our Judaism was compatible.

I think in the end thats what it is about.  Jewish practice is just one of many things which need to be compatible for a relationship to work.  Compromises are always inevitable, so you need to know what are you hard and fast rules and what you may willing to compromise on, both in regards to your Judaism and your life in general.

For even further reading on the topic, I’d suggest the book http://www.amazon.com/Two-Jews-Still-Mixed-Marriage/dp/1564144739 with practical advice from both Rabbinic and Psychological viewpoints.

Q&A: Is Judaism a Race or Religion?

post by Jessica

A friend of mine, who isn’t Jewish asked me a question recently in an email:

I say that Judaism is a race, because of the common ancestry, Abraham. My son says it’s a religion because you can go through conversion and become Jewish. I know you can, but if you are BORN Jewish and you are Jewish through ancestry, aren’t you part of an ethnic group?

What do Jewish people think? We tried to Google it, but everything was as clear as mud.

First, I’m not surprised that you had a hard time figuring out what’s what. Jews are famous for having more opinions than people. It was an interesting question, and not one that I had given much thought to. Race? Religion? Ethnic group?

One of the first things that comes to mind is the use of “race” as applied to Judaism always makes Jews nervous. Much of Hitler’s understanding of the Jewish community was based on the idea of the Jews as an inferior race. But, is there something to be said for the idea of Judaism as a race in general?

Jews aren’t the only ones to claim Abraham. Muslims do this as well, although they claim Ishmael rather than Isaac as a forefather, so the claim of Abraham doesn’t make Judaism unique and doesn’t seem to point to Judaism being a race any more than it points to Islam being a race.  Jews also live all over the world, and especially during the Middle Ages, there were many distinct groups of Jews, although they can principally be divided into Ashkenazi (those of Eastern European origin) and Sephardi (of North African or Western European descent). These groups display the diversity of Judaism in both appearance and practice, and seem to strengthen the idea that Jews aren’t a race, but rather a religion. I think this is particularly true in the case of converts – they are the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah according to the Hebrew names given to them at conversion, but spiritually, we also say they were standing with the Jewish people at Sinai, when we received the commandments.

However, there is probably something to be said for the idea of Judaism as an ethnic group, especially in America. There are American Jewish foods, attitudes and ideas about family, and I think they bear a lot of the signs of being an ethnic group. A lot of the Jews I know felt as though they could 100% identify with the storyline of My Big Fat Greek Wedding – which really could have been called “My Big Fat Ethnic Wedding.”  But even as an ethnic group, we’re wrapped in religious garb – our understanding of Jewish culture is influenced by our religious outlook as well.

Is Judaism unique in the way that it is expressed in American life? I’m probably not well versed enough to know, but I can totally understand why the Google articles would have been less than clear about it.

Q&A – “How do I honor my parents, if I can’t respect them?”

Post by Melissa

I recently received phone call from a good friend which began “I have a question for you as a future Rebbetzin…” {woah, how does one respond to that?} The question was (paraphrased): How can I honor my mother if all we do is fight and I can’t even respect her? I could not answer the question in the moment, and as much as I wanted to refer her to one of our Rabbis, I knew there was a reason I had been asked and that I needed to really think through it and come up with a suitable response.

While there are a lot of nuances to this specific situation, the basis from which I approached it seemed worthy of sharing. The commandment is most commonly translated as “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), however honor may not be the best definition of the Hebrew word kavod. In Talmudic writings kavod is also used to mean dignity and in some places, respect. So perhaps more so than honoring, which can seem very lofty, the important part is to treat them with dignity and to help uphold their dignity. This can be done, still while disagreeing.

You do not have to agree with someone to treat them with dignity. For example, though you may fight with your parent, do you use mean words and hold their past against them, or do you stick to the topic at hand and try to resolve the issue kindly? When your parent is aged and unable to do things for themselves, will you still support them and aid them in walking or shopping so that they are not made to feel additionally frail? This is upholding their dignity.

You do not have to love unconditionally, agree with everything and have a perfect relationship to uphold the commandment, I don’t think Hashem had that in mind. (Not that I profess to know so much about Hashem’s thinking, but look at the other things we are commanded at this point – Don’t kill, Keep Shabbat, No idols. These are pretty straightforward directives which are outlined as to how to follow.) It seems to me that the important thing is to recognize that these are the people who gave you life and have generally acted with your best interests in mind. They have worked to provide for you in the best way they knew how, and while that may not have always seemed the best to you, it was what they knew. So use that as the basis for your interactions, give them the benefit of the doubt, and uphold their dignity. Then someday when you have your own children (Be”H), they will do the same for you.