When I used to take my grandmother to visit her parent’s graves, the way we knew where they were, was the graves of a rabbi and his wife. Around the rabbi’s grave, they built a small enclosure, like a house. His wife, the rebbetzin was buried next to him, but she was outside the house. My grandmother used to get angry, and would say “Nebuch! for him they made a house, but they left her out in the rain, poor thing.” Rabbi’s wives, are often left out.
The term “Rebbetzin” is used in some circles but not others. Traditionally, it refers to the rabbi’s wife. In one sense, a woman acquires the title by being married to a rabbi. Because of this, people see it as largely honorific. In some cases, a rebbetzin is no more than an honorary title, because some rabbi’s wives don’t really do anything in regards to ministry, except for being the rabbi’s wife.
I have known many rebbetzins over the years and some were not active in their husband’s ministries, and others were. The synagogue I grew up in had an active rebbetzin. She taught hebrew school, and was actively involved in the life of the synagogue. She greeted people, taught children as well as young couples. She was a formidable woman of respect.
I have known other rabbi’s wives who kept to themselves and didn’t do more than show up at services. I don’t feel that is wrong, because there should be no expectation placed on a woman because she happens to be married to a rabbi. She has to tend to her own children, and her husband, and make the rabbi’s home welcoming.
There is a sense that a rebbetzin should know more, because she is married to the rabbi. I’m not saying she has any knowledge by osmosis, but the fact that she is married to the rabbi gives her more opportunity to learn from him. If she wishes, she can be a great help to her husband in her work. She also represents the rabbi’s family, and can not be separated from him. The way she is treated reflects on the rabbi. There have been some prominent women who are rebbetzins. Esther Jungreis, and Blu Greenberg have been teachers and leaders in their own rights, functioning as rebbetzins.
My wife is a rebbetzin, not only in title, but in action. When we first got married, the title rebbetzin seemed almost artificial, because it was the perception that it was unearned. I understand that. After seven years of being married to me, being a help mate in my ministry, and demonstrating her desire to serve and exercising her gifts, and counseling with wisdom, I am happy to acknowledge that she has truly earned the title.
One of the things I appreciate about her is her desire to serve in the congregation, and greet newcomers. She is patient and willing to explain things people don’t understand. She is comforting and encouraging. I consider myself blessed to have such a wife. One of the great blessings to me was hearing a woman point to my wife and say, “Now that’s a rebbetzin!” It’s one thing for me to recognize her gifts and service to God, and another for others to recognize and appreciate them.
All this being said, the real question is, “How should a rebbetzin be treated?” I always show respect for any rebbetzin because she is married to a rabbi, which is not an easy job in itself. As far as I’m concerned, I expect that my wife; my rebbetzin will be treated with the same respect that I am treated, not only because she is married to me, but because she has earned it. It’s not a matter of title; that’s secondary. Its respect for who she is, what she does, and our ministry together.