Why Orthodoxy needs its own Chief Rebbetzin

As well as a Chief Rabbi, there should be a parallel woman leader, too

By Sally Berkovic, May 5, 2011
Orthodox bat chayil graduates in Leeds, 2008 - do they need a spiritual role model?

Orthodox bat chayil graduates in Leeds, 2008 - do they need a spiritual role model?

We need a Chief Rebbetzin. Not the woman who happens to be married to whomever is the next Chief Rabbi; nor a woman who is necessarily married to a rabbi, or indeed married. We need a Chief Rebbetzin with a parallel position to the Chief Rabbi, who will serve the whole community, bringing to her task a perspective on women's lives and their challenges that has been missing to date.

We need a Chief Rebbetzin who will inspire men and women, a Chief Rebbetzin who can be a role model for young girls and boys, a Chief Rebbetzin who can help the whole community to think seriously about 51 per cent of its population.

The Chief Rebbetzin will be very busy. First, she will provide Jewish educational leadership. Many accomplished professionals and businesswomen belonging to the United Synagogue are woefully under-educated in Jewish matters. They are often infantilised by patronising lectures and offered Judaism-lite seminars with coffee, cake and minimal use of textual sources.

Models of serious women's education exist at Drisha in New York and Nishmat in Jerusalem. In London, the Bradfield Programme at the London School of Jewish Studies should be applauded for tackling the issue, but there is still a long way to go. In many Orthodox schools, there is a disparity between the opportunities for young boys and girls to learn independently, and until girls and boys are given an equal opportunity to acquire the same textual skills and delve into the same sources, women will never have same mastery over the texts as men.

Secondly, she will provide spiritual guidance, enabling women to focus on their personal aspirations. Women's spirituality and religious needs look very different from the androcentric religious practice dominating the community. A Chief Rebbetzin will encourage women to seek halachic alternatives which have already become popular abroad, including partnership minyanim and meaningful batmitzvah ceremonies. The Masorti and Reform synagogues are full of former United Synagogue women who feel disenfranchised from Orthodoxy, and a Chief Rebbetzin will feel compelled to find solutions rather than passively accept women drifting away.

Thirdly, she will answer halachic queries, particularly those concerning women's bodies and marital relations. Many women are embarrassed and deterred from asking their rabbi questions regarding the complex field of taharat hamishpachah (family purity laws); the yoatzot halachah programme for women in Israel has addressed this issue. A Chief Rebbetzin with the sensitivity to deal with these subjects may increase the level of observance among United Synagogue women.

She will be a public advocate for increasing ritual participation by women with her expert knowledge of halachic sources and will not resort to sociological considerations often used by rabbis to obstruct women and maintain the status quo. She might start by asking the dayanim why a woman cannot chair a United Synagogue or be a trustee of the organisation with full voting rights.

Fourthly, she will be a catalyst for community cohesion. Although formally representing the United Synagogue, she will forge effective links with women from across the community. She will model behaviour that looks beyond the labels that are defining and constraining us, encouraging all women and men to work together. She will reach out to the women who are not part of conventional families, challenging the community to recognise, accept and welcome women who are often marginalised in the community.

Fifthly, she will be a social critic. She will not single out "women's issues" as the sole concern of women; rather she will challenge the whole community to take responsibility for injustices against women, such as agunot (chained wives), their recalcitrant husbands and domestic violence. She will decry excessive materialism and encourage the community to take an active role in social action projects, highlighting that these too are religious obligations as they are concerned with helping one's fellow man and woman.

Her blog and twitter page will be widely followed, enabling her to engage with young people in the community, helping to shape, challenge and influence their views.

Finally, she will be a strategic planner, able to articulate a vision for the community. She will confront changing social realities and understand their impact on the community. She will certainly understand the dynamics and dilemmas of working parents and the influence of changing gender roles on the lives of women and men. She will engage with communal organisations to ensure that a full spectrum of religious views are considered in future communal planning.

She will galvanise women's philanthropic potential, encouraging women to leverage their economic independence for a seat on synagogue boards and communal bodies and agitate for changes such as improved education for girls.

Many women have been instrumental in tackling social issues facing the community; however, fewer have been able or willing to challenge rabbinic authority. She may need a different moniker, but as we ponder the appointment of a new Chief Rabbi, let's prepare the ground for an inspiring Chief Rebbetzin to represent United Synagogue women. Let's prepare the ground for a strong woman whom our daughters can admire. Let's make Chief Rebbetzin a respectable job for a nice Jewish girl.

Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, which discusses the tensions between modernity and Orthodox Judaism

Last updated: 11:55am, May 5 2011