Reflections and Gratitude

As those of you who have been reading our blog for some time know, we have all had pretty winding journeys. While we haven’t been nearly as prolific as we once were, this blog has been a great source of support on these journeys, and its still an important part of our lives.

Recently, Jessica and I were sitting together (I should have taken a picture!) at a panel discussion with rebbetzins in the field. They spoke so beautifully and touched on many things we have thought about and discussed over the years, and it profoundly reminded me of just how blessed we are to have the community which this blog has generated.

I am eternally grateful to all of you for reading along and for reaching out. Even if no one was reading, I would still write because its how I like to deal with my world, but knowing you are reading encourages me to actually post my musings.

(I keep making plans to post more, and it keeps not happening, but hopefully soon I’ll find a balance again.)


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.

Rebbetzin vs Rabbanit

I first heard the term rabbanit about a year ago, and always had the impression it was the Hebrew equivalent of rebbetzin, which is Yiddish.

However, a recent conversation in the Midrasha showed me another viewpoint….

One of my classmates said to me that I was going to be a great rebbetzin. To which another responded immediately “No she won’t, she’ll be a rabbanit.” I thanked the first person and quizically looked at the second. She went on to explain that rebbetzin is simply the title one gets by being married to a rabbi and that anyone can be a rebbetzin. In her opinion, a rabbanit is  woman who is educated and respected in her own right, who happens to also be married to a rabbi.

Woah! Now thats an interesting distinction. It sort of had my mind reeling with the implications and questions, but I couldn’t come to any sort of conclusion.

So now dear readers, I ask you — Do you feel there is any difference between the terms “Rebbetzin” and “Rabbanit?” Does one of these trigger a guttural reaction like it did to my friend?

What Rabbis Do?

I tend to not be a big fan of memes as they are often overblown, however the latest one with a series of photos about what various people think of different professions has been interesting. I’ve learned lots of fun things about my friends and what they are really up to these days, as well as how they really see themselves based on which ones they are posting.  (Every so often the social worker in me comes out!)

Tonight, two versions of this meme for rabbis crossed my Facebook newsfeed, and I just had to throw them out to the blog and see what people thought of them, though I am going to hold my own reflections for the moment.



I’m still waiting for a general Jewish Communal Professionals one. Anyone seen one?

Any of our rebbetzin readers want to share what they’d put on one?

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.

Wives Club

post by Jessica

About a week ago, we had the first meeting of the wives club for the rabbinical school. Clearly the experience of my fellow wives is something that I’m interested in, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the meeting would be. It was a small group, mostly because there are only about 15 wives total, so miss just a few of them and it’s a small group. Still, it was nice to talk about the issues of the day, and especially to talk to the wife of one of the students who is farther along at the yeshiva, and get her perspective on marriage and family while in yeshiva.

It’s part support group and part discussion group, so there were actually a few questions passed around for discussion. They were really interesting, a sort of check-in with where we are and I thought I’d share some of them and my answers now that I’ve had a little while to think about them. The subject was religious differences, which is something that R and I have been navigating since we started dating.

1. Do you anticipate conflict between your own religious beliefs and practices and the expectations of that others (including your spouse) have of you?

Lately, there hasn’t been too much conflict between the two of us about religious practice/belief. Most of the conflict is me being conflicted about my own level of observance. However, my conflict is largely stemming from what I anticipate will be the expectations of me when we are in a community and he is the rabbi and separating that from what I feel committed to. I anticipate that conflict, and I’m not sure how it will play out.

2. Are R & I on the same page religiously? How are we the same/different?

We are probably more similar now than we have been in a while, but there are definitely areas of difference. We consciously strive to make sure that it’s not in areas of communal need (i.e. not interfering with one another’s practice), and in general it’s that I’m more liberal than he is. I do think that we’ve both been consciously getting back into some traditions that we got out of while we were being crazy with Hillel.

3. Are you comfortable having differences in belief and practices?

When our relationship was founded, we knew there were differences, and likely always would be. We’ve gotten closer and farther and closer again over the years, but it’s always been something to be talked about and understood together. I do know that when we have kids it’ll be something that we’ll have to be even more clear about – never mind figuring out what we want to teach them and how.

4. Do you think rabbinical school has had/will have an effect on any of the things mentioned?

I’m not sure yet, clearly. I sort of imagine we might end up incorporating things that he learns in school into our daily practice, or that as he learns things we may have more information to make different decisions in our lives. The thing I do know is that we spend a lot of time talking about both rabbinical school and NYU, trying to share as much as we can. We have really different experiences on a day to day basis, and I think it’s been important to really actively keep those lines of communication open. Hopefully those will help us if any of these issues come up.

On another note, it was really great to meet a few wives and get to talk about these things for a few hours. I’m looking forward to doing it again soon, and I’m grateful that the school supports these kinds of things for us!