Talk to chief's wife, but don't interview her

By Ann Harris, February 16, 2012

The inclusion of a meeting with the wives of candidates for the post of British Chief Rabbi raises some conflicting points of interest.

While a formal interview by the selection committee of someone who is not to be employed would be totally unacceptable, an informal discussion relating to the position of the chief rabbi's wife in the community may well prove beneficial.

An honest airing of the issues involved on both sides would allow the committee to examine the perceptions and expectations surrounding the incumbent and permit each rabbi's wife to bring out into the open any apprehension she may have about a possible future communal role.

It is high time that all formally organised communities of whatever religious persuasion recognised the enormous challenges that face clergy families and in particular clergy wives. In a world in which the stability and security of marriage and family are faced with ever-increasing threat, communities still expect the wives of ministers to conduct their lives as if in a goldfish bowl and to shoulder unrealistic burdens. Given that this applies to the rank-and-file, how much more difficult must it be for the wife and family of a chief rabbi.

Most communities have great expectations of what duties rabbi's wife should carry out in her public persona. But in fact, no woman should be assuming the role of educator or pastoral adviser unless she has the aptitude and training for such tasks. Moreover, other than the accepted Jewish value of hachnassat orchim incumbent upon all families, no woman should be expected to fill her home on a weekly basis with people with whom she has nothing in common and have sometimes come only out of curiosity.

What communities are entitled to expect is an example of conjugal support. That support can take many different forms, each specific and personal to every individual marriage. It may be economic, moral, intellectual or practical. What form it takes is nobody's affair but that of husband and wife.

If the correct level of support exists, the stability it renders will allow any clergyman and in particular a chief rabbi to perform his duties with a tranquil and totally concentrated mind. It will also allow every community to have the benefit of a wife who is the role model it deserves.

Ann Harris, a solicitor, is the widow of the late Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris

Last updated: 1:28pm, February 16 2012