Are Rebbetzins an endangered species?

What do you call a doctor’s wife? What do you call a lawyer’s wife? What do you call an accountant’s wife? What do you call a rabbi’s wife?

When I first arrived in Edmonton, thirteen years ago, I insisted people call me Batya as opposed to the rebbetzin title that was foisted onto me. I was no rebbetzin – to me a rebbetzin was a wiser, older woman who devoted her life to the community. I was a financial analyst from New York that happened to marry a rabbi who dragged me out to yehupitz!! The rabbinate was his calling; it wasn’t mine, or so I thought.

But, life takes us down certain paths, many of which were never planned or imagined. And so, after a few years working quietly behind the scenes helping out in the spiritual leadership of the shul, I decided to finally embrace my calling and come out of the rabbinic closet. I became more openly involved in the shul’s activities and programs, giving shiurim to women, counseling couples, being a chaplain in the hospital, teaching kallah classes, preparing girls for their bat mitzvahs, and so on and so forth. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had become the female clergyperson of Beth Israel Synagogue – all while still being a financial analyst, mother and wife!

The doctor’s wife is called Mrs. Goldberg, the accountant’s wife is called Mrs. Smith. How did the rabbi’s wife earn an actual, independent title? Rebbetzin – or in Hebrew, rabbanit – is the female equivalent of rabbi. It is the feminine form of the word. The rabbinate is the only profession where the wife earns a title equal to her spouse.

But doesn’t one become a rabbi when they’re ordained? Yes and no. On the one hand, many people receive semicha, but never end up serving in a rabbinic capacity. They end up in medicine or law – are they still rabbis? On the other hand, you have “rabbis” who don’t have semicha and are very well entrenched in rabbinic roles, going so far as to use the title ‘rabbi’ that they never formally earned – from school teachers to mashgichim to administrators of Jewish institutions.

A piece of paper is not the ‘be all and end all’ that makes you a rabbi. You become a rabbi through blood, sweat and tears. It’s all those sleepless nights tending to the flock that makes you a rabbi. It’s the house full of Shabbos guests that makes you a rabbi. It’s the family time that gives way to communal activities that makes you a rabbi. It’s the endless flow of shiurim and one-on-one learning that makes you a rabbi.

Rebbetzins are not just rabbi’s wives – they work hard to earn their title. A rebbetzin is the female spiritual leader of the community. If that’s not a female rabbi, what is? And anyone who diminishes the role and title of the rebbetzin is demeaning our beloved heritage.

Every woman who marries a rabbi has the potential to become a rebbetzin. There was a reason that Hashem brought these two people together. They merited each other so that they could both reach their greatest spiritual potential. Some women who marry rabbis do not embrace the role presented to them; they decide not to pursue the opportunity of becoming klei kodesh, which is fine and their choice. Most rebbetzins, however, choose to embrace the role – in some way, shape or form – and become the female spiritual leader of their community.

When an Orthodox Jewish man wants to pursue a career in the rabbinate, he has the opportunity to go to rabbinical school. But if a woman wants to work in klei kodesh, if she is single or not married to a rabbi, how can she enter the clergy? Today there are many graduate women’s programs available to women who wish to advance their Torah study and/or enter the service of Klal Yisrael – from YU’s GPATS to Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha to some of the more controversial programs at the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum at Lindenbaum, Drisha, Pardes, Maharat and Harel.

It is wonderful and beautiful that Orthodox Jewish women can now pursue a course of study to become klei kodesh. Nevertheless, this does not give them the right to discount or denigrate women already serving in the rabbinate, albeit without a piece of paper. ‘We don’t want to become rebbetzins,’ they say, ‘that’s just the rabbi’s wife.’ Sadly, the campaign to put down the rebbetzin by some of these a la mode institutions has at times been so malicious, and rebbetzins have been treated with such contempt, that some incredible rebbetzins themselves have felt the need to pursue course-based “ordination” to receive an official title! Why would they, when they are already serving as active clergy, title and all?! I am not referring to those rebbetzins who want to further their Torah knowledge and/or halachic specialization (e.g. Yoetzet, Toenet), but to those who feel the need to receive validation for their clergy status.

Rebbetzins don’t need an additional title. They need to stand up and take pride in the title they’ve earned through their hard work and dedication. They need to take ownership and acknowledge their vital role, instead of succumbing to institutions that don’t recognize them as female clergy or admit to their contributions. Unfortunately, the shul and the community – and even sometimes the husbands – have failed to comprehend their contributions as the female spiritual leader. They too need to appreciate their rebbetzins and be aware of their incredible dedication.

Ever since our matriarch Sarah who “converted the women” while Avraham “converted the men,” rebbetzins have always worked in partnership with the rabbis. Their roles have evolved over time like all the other female positions and indeed like the role of the rabbi! To deny them the sacredness of their role and title is disrespectful and we are only feeding into the chauvinism of the few. We need female spiritual leaders. Some women are born rebbetzins, some become rebbetzins when they find their other half, and others deserve the right to choose to become rebbetzins on their own. We need to work together to develop programs that are recognized and accepted across the Orthodox spectrum allowing those women who want to devote their life to klei kodesh to receive formal training and learning to earn certification in the holy title of ‘rebbetzin’!

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Hamsptead Garden Suburb Synagogue in London, UK and in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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