Religion, Romance, and Rebbitzens
In my recent post “Defending the Rebbitzens” I discussed some ways in which the rabbi’s wife may be taken for granted by a congregation in terms of her communal contributions. Beyond those examples cited, there are many areas in which a rabbinic couple faces unfair if not unrealistic expectations, not the least of which is their marital relationship. Like other public figures or celebrities, the rabbinic couple is the de facto familial role model for the community, and subsequently held to a higher standard than “normal” couples. For better or worse, a community may look towards the rabbinic example with the intent to mimic their matrimonial model.1
This expectation no doubt can put a tremendous strain on a marriage, which some rabbinical schools attempt to address as part of the training process. Most of my colleagues in Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school were already married, but I do remember being told that those who were still single should not only look for a wife, but also a rebbitzen. Perhaps more helpfully, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah includes spouses in the rabbinic training program itself:
…we have instituted a monthly support group for spouses. YCT realizes that the role of rebbetzin is a complex one. Women come from varied personal and professional backgrounds and anticipate different degrees of engagement in their husbands’ professional lives. The support group, facilitated by a rebbetzin who is also a social worker, allows exploration of these issues and provides opportunities for students’ wives to talk with other rebbetzins who come to New York specifically for group meetings.2
It is clear that in addition to normal marital difficulties, rabbinic couples often must face additional if not magnified tensions. One such overlooked area of potential discord is, ironically, the matter of familial religious practice itself.
Conventional wisdom dictates that a healthy marriage is based on mutual trust, understanding, and a sense of equality and partnership. But while both the rabbi and rebbitzen may be equally passionate about their observance, the husband – by virtue of his rabbinic education – will be more knowledgeable than his wife in matters of religious observance. Thus, any religious dialogue will necessarily be unbalanced.
In order to convey this point, I will give a few general examples from my own experience in dating. In once particular instance I once found myself arguing over the proper use of a microwave in terms of kashrut. I was arguing my position based on my understanding of Yoreh Deah and she steadfastly held by whatever her rabbi said, regardless of whatever source I would happen to quote.3
In another relationship I found myself unable to even engage in the text themselves with my significant other. If I assumed a role of superiority I would come across as patronizing and condescending. On the other hand, if we exchanged as equals she would not be able to engage with sufficient textual and contextual background.
To be sure these exchanges may have been unique to my relationships, and I should remind the reader that I am still single after all. However I suspect these sorts of exchanges are not uncommon among other married rabbinic couples in some form or another.
Consider first that successful rabbis must already compromise on religious observance for their communities i.e. they know which stringencies and which leniencies are appropriate for their congregations. But at home one would suspect the rabbi would have some control over his own observance, if nothing else as a spiritually stabilizing element in his life.
Secondly, for a rabbi halakhic observance is not subject to negotiation like dishes, driving, or diapers. It is a way of life determined by ones understanding of technical legal sources imbued with religious significance, not to be traded for taking out the garbage.
Finally, even mature compromises will not prevent every possible conflict. For example, assume a rabbinic couple takes a position of respectful autonomy – where the husband and wife agree to follow their own understanding of Jewish law. This arrangement will only sustain until such time as one requires the other to compromise on their own expectation of religious independence.
Like any relationship dispute, the greater point of contention or seriousness of the dispute, the greater the tension. And just like “normal” marriages, rabbinic marriages sometimes do end in divorce. But given that rabbis and rebbitzens often live long and happy lives together, it is clear that none of these issues of religious tensions are necessarily insurmountable and that healthy couples can live together even with persistent religious disagreements.
I suppose the rabbinic couples may be considered role models after all.
2. Friedman, Michelle. “Pastoral Counseling at YCT Rabbinical School.” Milin Chavivin vol. 1. (2005) p. 82-83. Despite this effort from the rabbinical school, there have still been multiple divorces and broken engagement, though it is difficult to tell if such rates are higher than those for other rabbinical students or the population at large.
3. There’s an often repeated story that R. Yosef Soloveitchik was once told by his wife, “you and your Shulhan Aruch are treifing up my kitchen.”