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Response to the Rebbetzins

The “rebbetzin” is a specious title. The wife of a rabbi, she gains her status from nothing more than the happenstance of marriage. Although a person seeking out medical counsel from a doctor’s spouse is likely to be met with curiosity if not an actual straitjacket, we in the Jewish community have a cultural history of affording the rebbetzin a particular status of knower or counselor. There may have been a certain historical-sociological legitimacy to this. After all, in past worlds where women were excluded from formal education and men were deemed emotional boors, the rabbi’s wife would fill in for the rabbi in all matters “feminine” — such as say, questions involving birth or human feelings.

Nevertheless, in today’s world, in which women can study and achieve their own titles, when we no longer live in shtetls and people can freely choose their own counselors, I find it odd that the contemporary rebbetzin is still considered in some circles to be an automatically qualified educator. This is particularly jarring in Israel, where the Hebrew title for rabbi’s wife, “rabbanit,” which should really mean “female rabbi,” is dubiously used by certain women to grant themselves a stature based solely on the qualification of owning this particular marriage certificate. Some of us worked for many years to attain our certifications and titles. Moreover, some of my experiences as a student of certain rebbetzins have been, frankly, less than enthralling. At this point in time, the opportunity to learn from a rebbetzin holds no particular attraction or interest for me.

My overall wariness about the educational predilections of the rebbetzin was exacerbated this week by news that 27 rebbetzins from an organization calling itself “Lehava” signed a letter calling on Jewish girls to stay far away from Arab boys.

Assuming that such a letter even has any educational value or influence on its stated target audience — just because petition was the medium of choice for a group of rabbis promoting a similar anti-Arab agenda does not make it a wise one, although, it does highlight the telling overlap between racist attitudes and questionable educational methodology among certain populations — one cannot help but wonder about this choice of educational message. Of all the ideas that a group of women would want to put all their energies behind and instill unequivocally in the next generation, why this?

Empowerment, compassion, scholarship, balance, spirituality, independence, social awareness — these are among the values and messages that I could see wanting to urge all my friends to support. But this? As Anat Gopstein, wife of Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein of Kiryat Arba who apparently heads Lehava, told Army Radio this morning, “We need to teach girls to be afraid. We are at war with the Arabs. This used to be clearer, but unfortunately, it is not clear to young women anymore. We need to make it unequivocal for them: the Arabs are our enemy.”

There it is, folks, the rebbetzins’ vision for the next generation — war, fear, and absolute divisions between “us” and “them”.

Now, granted, I’m not a rebbetzin, but I happen to have a doctorate in education, so I’m going to offer a different educational and societal vision, an alternative message for my daughters and their contemporaries. How about this:

Do not walk in fear. Walk with courage and inner strength and the knowledge that all human beings are created in the Divine image, including you. Connect with people wherever and whenever you can, with compassion in your heart and respect in your mind. When you encounter someone who is different, open your ears and endeavor to hear their story. Open your spirit to the possibility that what connects us is greater than what divides us. If we work on building a world in which people are trying to understand one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect, one person at a time, one connection a time, perhaps we will be able to build a society in peace. Love is a more divine quality than fear, so walk with love and you will no doubt bring the Godly spirit into the universe.

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