Wednesday, January 11, 2012

So you want to be a Rebbetzin?

When a certain well-known rabbi heard I wanted to enter the rabbinate, he put his hands on my head, gave the top of my skull a long look, and said something along the lines of, “That’s strange; I don’t see anything wrong.”

Personally, I think he had the wrong party; I think he should have done that to my wife. To be a Rebbetzin you have to be, well, I don't know what . You must have a generosity gland that runs in twenty-four hour overdrive. You must have the patience of not just one saint, but several thousand of them. And you must lack any sense of self-preservation.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider these points:

1. The rabbi will work 24/7 looking after the needs of people in the community, but will also receive Thank You and “Job well done” comments (yes, along with doses of righteous criticism…). The Rebbetzin will not have the rabbi’s help at home and will not have the rabbi’s companionship throughout that 24/7, and will receive far fewer Thank You and “Job well done” comments, if any.

2. People in the community will doubtless comment that they wish the Rebbetzin would teach more classes, attend more committee meetings, host more people and be involved in more projects. But because the Rebbetzin doesn’t function in an official capacity, she won’t have the opportunity to face those people and rebut them. The rabbi, at least, can attend a board meeting or speak from the pulpit; where is the Rebbetzin’s public forum?

3. The rabbi will certainly love his Rebbetzin, but he will equally certainly spend time talking to female committee members, counseling women, and so on. It’s all part of the job, the rabbi will say. And this will be the truth … but still…

4. The rabbi will wail and cry on his Rebbetzin's shoulder when things go wrong, when people get sick and die, when life in general becomes tough. The Rebbetzin, on the other hand, will generally not have the option of doing the same to him, because he will be out of the house taking care of other people who are wailing and crying on his shoulder.

I suppose it’s one thing for a woman to marry a man who then goes into the rabbinate, but I cannot fathom why a woman would actually marry a rabbi.

Of course, my rebbetzin did exactly that; go figure. I can’t understand women.

(originally written in honor of my wife and Rebbetzin's birthday several years ago...)


  1. R' Emanuel Feldman shlit'a has written on this too. He said his wife had to live in a glass house; and if he felt like he got little practical training for the real-world rabbinate he would face (they didn't have your blog in his days), his wife got none.

    Some of the rebbetzin's roles you mention are more or less inherent to being the rabbi's wife (long hours, crying shoulder). But what gets me more are the situations where shuls get greedy and expect 2 for the price of 1.

    (I'll likely be tar-and-feathered for my next point.)

    I hope, as the Orthodox community figures out the right roles for women in educational/leadership/communal responsibilities, that eventually this will improve a lot of marriages. Men who would like to be rabbis should be able to do so without their wives being expected to be professional "rebbetzins", and women who want to officially do all sorts of stuff for the community should be able to do so without having to be married to a rabbi!

  2. Though I am against the radical feminist movement I do admit that women have all the power by nature.
    In yeshivot in the old days there was a saying if the wife wants the husband to learn, he will learn. If she does not want him to learn he will not learn. And from what I have seen I could not agree more.

  3. You could say the same thing about a doctor's wife.

    And the reality is that the rebbetzin does indeed enjoy an exalted and lauded position in the community.

  4. You didn't mention that if your rebbetzin is, let's say a Harvard-trained lawyer, she will still live in her husband's shadow (at least in the shul community) despite her intellect and education. And pursuing her professional career will be a lot harder as a rebbetzin, because she will always feel called-upon by the community's needs and a bit guilty when she can't do it all (and no one can). And if it is a really small community, then she will be expected to do the catering and hostessing and commiserating, etc. that is divided among others in larger communities.

    In many communities, the rebbetzin has a profession without being paid for it; but heaven help the rabbi and rebbetzin if she doesn't live up to expectations! In fact, many communities get a great deal because they get the labor of two while paying only one.

  5. Pesachim 50b

    תנו רבנן המצפה לשכר אשתו וריחים אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם שכר אשתו מתקולתא ריחייא אגרתא אבל עבדה ומזבנה אישתבוחי משתבח בה קרא דכתיב (משלי לא) סדין עשתה ותמכור:

    Chazal weren't so crazy about a man who puts his wife into the public eye, to better sell his product.

    Yet that seems to be what we all expect today of a rabbi. Have you ever had a probeh where your wife didn't feel she was being evaluated too?

  6. Shalom-
    All true... and yet, there is something said for the role of "Mrs. Rabbi" and its significance to the community, if the situation is not abused.

    Not every shul gives the Rebbetzin her own reserved parking space, you know.
    And I'm pretty sure the doctor's wife doesn't encounter the medical equivalent of point #2?

    R' Mordechai-
    No shadow here... at least, not in that direction!


  7. Have I mentioned this before? In the Pnei Yehoshua's contract for his pulpit in Berlin, it specifies that he gets Mizrach seat, "and his wife gets the special rebbetzin's seat in the ezras nashim." (It's printed at the beginning of Or HaYashar, available on -- I should link it but I'm too lazy.)

  8. From here:

    ו: ניתן לכבוד אדמו״ר נ״י מקום חשוב בבה״כ הקבוע לפי כבודו בכותל מזרחית ראשון בקודש לצד הא״ק וכן להגבירה הרבנית מקום חשוב השייך לה בעזרת נשים

    The whole document is a fascinating read.

    Another interesting point: of all the job duties and perks listed with this pulpit, item #1 is: education.