Defending the Rebbitzens

The recent controversy surrounding orthodox women rabbis has reignited the general debates of gender discrimination in Orthodox Judaism. Jewish law precludes women from participating in many communal functions such as counting in a minyan or serving as witnesses. Since no such law or statute prohibits women from being ordained as rabbis or rabbinic figures – either in the classical or modern sense of the term – it is understandable if some women view their exclusion from leadership positions as a form of institutional misogyny.

However Jewish society has discriminated against both men and women in leadership positions for generations, often with the communal complicity of self-identified feminists. I am referring here to the expectations and demands of the Rabbi’s wife, better known as The Rebbitzen.

The position of Rebbitzen is unusual in that it is more social than an occupation, yet it assumes innumerable obligations to the community. As the son of a longtime pulpit rabbi, I have observed first hand how much my mother did – and does – for the community, often without recognition let alone compensation. Depending on the community, rebbitzens can be expected to do any number of the following tasks:

  • Entertain: shopping / cooking / cleaning / playing hostess
  • Organize and run shul functions and programs such as events, Shabbat groups / day care, or kiddushes
  • Accompany her husband to communal and private functions in an official role
  • Train bat mitzvah girls
  • Give classes
  • Answer halakhic questions
  • Provide personal counseling
  • Anything else the community demands or expects.

Furthermore, the rebbitzen is often expected to do all these things while raising a family and likely holding down a job on her own.

There are some synagogues which disclose their expectations of the rebbitzen up front in the job description or contract, in which case it is up to the couple to accept or decline the position. But even in these instances, the salary offered by the synagogue rarely takes into account the labor and time required of the rebbitzen in which case she is essentially expected to work for the shul without proper compensation.

This reality would appear to violate the feminist dictum of “equal pay for equal work.” As described by the National Organization for Women:

Women still are not receiving equal pay for equal work, let alone equal pay for work of equal value. This disparity not only affects women’s spending power, it penalizes their retirement security by creating gaps in Social Security and pensions. [Emphasis Added]

Given that a rebbitzen may perform similar functions as her husband – often providing coverage if the rabbi is indisposed – then it is hard to argue that she is not providing similar value to the congregation with minimal if any payment in return.

While such an arrangement may not be consistent with feminist ideals, it is obviously financially beneficial to the communities. In fact the inequality is continually perpetuated by congregations not only their treatment of the rebbitzen, but even in the search process of a new rabbi. Based on my reading of placement lists, the majority of congregations seeking rabbis will only seriously consider married couples even though being married is not necessary to perform rabbinic duties. Even though this type of discrimination is very likely illegal, congregations often ignore the law and their own sense of purported ethics in the prospect of getting cheap, if not free, labor.1

My intent is not to disregard the perceptions of gender-inequality in Jewish society – for the moment I will accept them at face value – but I would like to use the example of the rebbitzen to reframe the conversation. For better or worse, the reality is that Jewish culture (and perhaps all cultures) accepts and legitimates various forms of discrimination, and it is hardly rare for individuals to compromise their beliefs when it is expedient to do so. If the goal of a Jewish community is to incline towards egalitarianism, then it must be willing to do so even it is socially and financially inconvenient. Otherwise, Jewish feminist advocacy will be rightly considered by critics as specific issue-driven politics, rather than a commitment to a true ideology of equality.

1. There are certainly other social reasons for not hiring single rabbis such as perceived maturity and stability. It is possible then that congregations would only be engaging in illegal discrimination rather than perpetuating misogynistic stereotypes.

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  • Larry Lennhoff

    Actually the last 2 rebbetzins at my MO shul made it clear they had careers of their own, and their aviailability as unpaid community workers would be minimal. The rebbetzin at the local Agudah is a psychotherapist, and I’m not sure how much of a traditional rebbetzin’s role she fulfills. The remaining shul rebbetzins in town (3) fulfill the traditional functions.

  • Josh

    I also know of other rebbitzens – or husband’s on their behalf – who explicitly state they’re not employees of the shul, but they need to set up those boundaries (assuming their kept). The default is that they’re expected to participate.

    I didn’t focus on this point in the post, but I had an interesting facebook thread comparing the discrimination of women rabbis to single rabbis. Even if a rebbitzen decides not to be involved in the congregation, she is still a necessary component to a rabbi getting hired.

  • avi greene

    Your characterization of halachik obligations and basic components as ” participating in many communal functions” does not do the rabbis role justice! In many small towns (anything outside NY or NJ) the rabbi often needs to be present to make the shiva minyan and lead davening. Furthermore, stating that ” no such law or statute prohibits women from being ordained as rabbis or rabbinic figures – either in the classical or modern sense of the term ” is misleading since Rabbi is primarily a title referring to a body of work that has been mastered. The truth is the term Rabbi is a communally agreed upon form for a person who can perform specific functions some that require smicha and most that do not. I believe that it is the changing roles of Rebbetzins that leave us needing greater female leadership. Bring back the MaHaRat, I need someone to teach and model for the next generation of orthodox women!

  • Josh

    I wanted to avoid that part of the discussion here, but there’s nothing wrong with the title rabbi. Even men rabbis may have halakhic issues in performing their services such as a kohein rabbi officiating a funeral.

    Today it’s a professional title, exact specifications mean different things to different people

  • Mordechai Y. Scher

    In addition to your note ‘1’, I would add this may be similar to the halacha that prohibited a single man from teaching children. The ‘rabbi’ comes into contact with all manner of people in all manner of personal circumstances and vulnerabilities. Being married *may* help create a certain reserve in his manners that will help avoid misunderstandings and trouble.

    Mind you, I sincerely doubt that is what any of these communities advertising have in mind. They’re looking for some extra, ‘free’ labor. More bang for their buck. And the rebbetzin really does add much that the rabbi cannot create himself.

  • Dani

    Am I the first Rabbi’s wife to chime in here?

    I find the hardest part to actually be the fact that I’m not allowed to be human. I have to always be cheerful, friendly, upbeat, willing to be kissed, hugged, petted…

    I can’t even tell people to get their hands off my stomach when I’m pregnant. I need to wait for another congregant to be horrified at the breach in privacy and say something for me.

    It’s definitely hard to have a job that no one sees as a job. I tell people I’m a stay-at-home mother, but the fact is that there are obligations for a clergy-member’s spouse that can not be compared to any other field.
    We have a rebbetzin’s group on Yahoo where we can discuss things that come up, and one woman told of having someone complain to her that she just isn’t friendly enough. This is a woman who is very private, a bit of an introvert, and makes a conscious effort to greet everyone on Shabbat (with a smile, no less!). She has people over for meals, teaches classes… and sometimes she’s just tired and spaced out at the grocery store, you know?

    The expectations are sometimes completely unrealistic, and it takes a strong couple to create real boundaries. But you have to, especially if you want to raise children while on the job.

    I think some communities are better at appreciating the role the Rabbi’s wife fills, and some just don’t get it. But I know that my husband gets it, and the rest of it is just the rest of it. : )

  • Josh

    Well said and much appreciated!

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  • Jessica

    Fascinating take on the world of the Orthodox rebbetzin. I think you’re right that a lot of congregations have figure this one out, in terms of equal pay for equal work or something like that.

    We can also look at what happened in the more liberal forms of Judaism when those gender roles became more equal. In most congregations, they hired staff members to do what the rebbetzin had always done, leaving the rebbetzin more free to pursue her own interests.

    Maybe the solution is for rebbetzins to receive compensation, rather than hiring another staff person. To acknowledge that work would probably move equality pretty far in Orthodoxy!

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