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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