Originally from a Chabad family, Brawer married an Orthodox rabbi and then embraced the role of “Rebbetzin” with great fervour and devotion.
She writes, “[a]s a rebbetzin, I led community development strategy, counseled congregants, taught Torah — and baked plenty of challah.”
Many Rebbetzins perform these invaluable roles in the community. I have been invited to “the Rabbi’s house” for many a Shabbos meal, and have always been in awe of my “hostess”, a powerful and often more likable character than her husband, serving up a multi-course meal fit for royalty, in an immaculately clean house, with multiple children popping in and out of the room.
More often than not, it is the Rebbetzin who is more warm and engaging. She would provide a forum in which to have an intimate conversation, asking personal yet appropriate questions. She was often very learned, and took on many leadership roles in the field of ritual and Jewish practice. But she received no formal recognition in her own right.
In most Orthodox circles, there are many explanations as to why women cannot hold the status of men. Sometimes, they are patronizingly told that women are holier than men, and therefore don’t need to be obligated in ritual. Or, that their primary responsibility – taking care of the home and the children – does not leave room for public involvement. Women are taught to be humble – so humble that they do not need recognition, or fancy titles. And when women do seek greater recognition, they are often told that they are being egocentric. Women are not supposed to be ambitions.
Brawer approaches her desire for greater recognition with humility. She doesn’t seem angry or bitter. But she writes, “And yet, while I clearly had carved out a communal role for myself, I couldn’t avoid the nagging feeling that if it weren’t for my husband, I wouldn’t have that role.”
She asks: “What message does a community convey when the role of female leader is limited to women who happen to be married to a rabbi? It is insulting to women’s intellectual and pastoral capabilities. It also severely limits the pool of potential leaders to spouses of rabbis.”
Now Brawer is a student at the Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox Yeshiva that ordains women as clergy.
For many women who are extremely learned and have already taken on informal leadership roles in the Jewish community, Yeshivat Maharat finally gives women a uniformly recognized qualification.
Maharat is an acronym for Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, which means Leader of Jewish law, spirituality and ritual. Initially, the title to be adopted by anyone who was ordained by the Yeshivah was “Rabba,” and indeed one of its founders, Rabba Sara Hurwitz maintains that title. But the organization then decided to adopt the “less controversial” title, Maharat.
Labels and titles aside, this is an important step forward for women’s leadership in the Orthodox world. In spite of some fierce opposition, the course has proven to be incredibly popular. More and more women are knocking on the Yeshivah’s doors. Clearly the community is thirsty for more institutionalized female leadership.
You can read the full blog post here.