By Harriet P. Gross
Way back when I was in grade school, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi when I grew up. But I never told anyone, because the idea of that career for a girl was preposterous so many years before equality for women became a reality. When I got into college, I did confide my dream to a few trusted friends, all of whom had the same response: You can marry a rabbi.
Well, I almost did. But it’s a good thing I didn’t, because I would have driven the poor man crazy! Today, I envy women rabbis, but I’m intensely interested in the lives of rabbis’ wives. And in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned a lot from the writings of two of them.
The first: 13 years with a husband who was the assistant rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in an urban area. The second: for longer than that, still married to the senior rabbi of a large Reform congregation in a major city.
The first woman is bitter. She, like I, had contemplated the rabbinate for herself, but she too had found her dream unthinkable, even a decade and more after me. On the first Shabbat in her new rebbetzin role, the senior rabbi’s wife whispered this warning: “If you wear the same outfit to services every week, people will say, ‘We pay her husband enough so she should vary her wardrobe.’ But if you wear different outfits, people will say ‘We must be paying her husband too much.’ You can’t win.”
Says the new rebbetzin, “So began my descent into the underbelly of organized religion. My journey showed me that behind the façade of morality often lurk some ugly truths about people … After weekly Sabbath services, the very people who had just spent several hours in prayerful devotion felt no qualms about approaching me concerning the length of my husband’s sermon (too long and boring, or too short and shallow) or the clashing of his tie with his shirt.”
The second woman is 180 degrees removed from the first. After reading the other wife’s words, she commented, “How different two people’s experience of a common reality can be. One rebbetzin is left cold by her superficial interactions with community members, while I feel warmed by the depth of connections I have with the members of my community … Living one’s life in the front row can be a challenge, (yet) I know from sharing my life with my husband that the work rabbis do is sacred work. And because we who marry them share in our spouses’ daily routines and rhythms, we find ourselves in life’s midst as well. I feel privileged to be warmed by a web of relationships. I feel fortunate and proud to be a rabbi’s wife.”
Rebbetzin No. 1 never adjusted to the demands of her role, while Rebbetzin No. 2 has no hesitancy to tell people who criticize her husband’s sermons or his shirt-and-tie combinations, “Please call on him at his office.” Maybe that attitude makes all the difference?
One other rebbetzin whose feelings I’ve learned about in-depth was married to the spiritual leader of one of those downtown congregations that exist in big cities almost solely for the convenience of businessmen who need a nearby place to pray during their work week. Of course, this couple had to live near their shul, but the wife ultimately divorced her husband, not because of being a rabbi’s wife — which she had always wished to become — but because she could not handle Shabbat and holiday isolation; living too far away to walk to any other shul, or to share these occasions with family and friends. She found it impossible to give up the joys of Jewish social interaction.
I wonder if our local rabbis’ wives might care to weigh in on their experiences, and their feelings about their very special roles in the religious communities within our larger Jewish community?