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!