Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”
“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”
I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.
“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”
“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”
At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.
Then I married a rabbinical student.
Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.
My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.
I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.
Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.
However, the rebbetzin still exists.
The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).
The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.
The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.
If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.
I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

8 thoughts on “Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

  1. I assume you’ve come across, “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz?
    I don’t have a great answer to why this still exists here and now except to say that the double standard for wives as supporters of their husband’s professions regardless of their own professions exists beyond the clergy. I suspect male/female spouses of congregational rabbis generally have the additional burden of being community exemplars who are expected to regularly be present at communal events. Also, when the “tradition” was you hire a rabbi and you get their wife as an unpaid employee, you can sadly see how that tradition might be hard to break for hiring and evaluation committees.
    Lastly, as also discussed in Dr. Schwartz’ book, the “professional” role of Rebbetzin was actively taken up and prized within the Orthodox world as a response to the cultural changes around them. This might keep the institution around even as the other movements hopefully evolve away from it.

    1. I have come across that book–and I even attended a rebbetzin conference held at Hebrew College a few years ago in search of more rebbetzin answers. The conference was great for a sense of solidarity, and “The Rabbi’s Wife” came up quite a bit. We came to a lot of the same conclusions you mention–it’s a very tricky position to be in, and while the position really hearkens from another time, the pressures and unspoken obligations still exist in very concrete ways. (Of course, this is from the vantage of the non Orthodox world. The Orthodox system for rebbetzins doesn’t have the issue of conflicting careers, so it works differently.)
      As someone thrust into this role (and an interesting version of it, what with the queerness and all!), I’m interested in exploring our unspoken expectations for rebbetzins. I want to know what they are exactly; I want to know where those expectations came from and what they mean about who we are and were as a culture. I also feel like when we look at those sorts of expectations in a more explicit manner, we’re forced to confront some gender stuff and some capitalist stuff too.

  2. I grew up in a shul in which the rabbi (male) and cantor (female) are married to each other. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized that that isn’t always the case.

  3. First, I agree that this important and sometimes under-praised,and under-appreciated role is worth examining. Generally what has changed over the years is that rabbis themselves have taken on more of these caring,nurturing roles (for example, a greater emphasis in pastoral counselling, for example and) and shuls have hired more outreach co-coordinators, youth directors, adult education leaders, membership coordinators,community engagement staff, etc. who do in a paid role what was sometimes done for free by the Rebitzen.
    While most female rabbinical spouses still do some of this work, most in the non-Orthodox world still have other jobs and so do less of it than in the past.
    Certainly male rabbinical spouses (one I know calls himself the RebitzMan)do less of this than traditional wives do, but they still do some of it.
    The ones who end up doing the most of this work on top of their normal jobs are single female rabbis.

    1. I’ve noticed this trend of parceling up traditional rebbetzin work and assigning it to rabbis themselves, teachers, temple administrators and social workers. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet… on the one hand, it’s good that there is some recognition of the traditional rebbetzin jobs being valuable in and of themselves and paying these people for them.
      On the other hand, social workers and temple administrators aren’t given the same respect and compensation that rabbis are–there are a lot of occupations traditionally held by women that I believe are undervalued because of lingering sexist ideas in our society.
      On another hand (yes, there are three hands now; clearly I have lots of thoughts about this!), I frequently have issues with capitalism, and I think there’s the potential for something profoundly radical hidden inside a prestigious role that trades in community esteem rather than money.
      So much to think about! And so little time, what with my non rebbetzin career and all… 😉

  4. The rabbi’s wife at the modern orthodox shul I grew up at had a career as a teacher and social worker, although it looked like she kept it flexible and rebbitzen-role friendly. I know of another modern orthodox rebbitzen in a neighboring community who is a scientist (her husband worked as a teacher and school administrator before being requested to serve as a congregational rabbi later in his career.)
    So, I’m pretty sure there are orthodox women married to rabbis who would relate to this piece. Great piece, btw.

    1. I’m not gonna lie, working only part time in higher ed was a lot more conducive to rebbetzining than what I’m currently doing. I wonder if a lot of contemporary rebbetzins find ways to work part time, such that the family has one and a half incomes… It seems certain jobs like adjunct professorships are inadvertently well set up for rebbetzins.
      And thank you!

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