I wanted to be as close to achieving the perfect frum wifely ideal as possible!
And all the advice sounded very good.
And I was very idealistic.
But it didn’t always work out well. In fact, like with some of the parenting advice I received later, some of the marital advice seemed to backfire.
When I young and newly married, one rebbetzin insisted that good communication demanded that I force my husband to parrot back everything I tell him (well, not everything…just the stuff I felt necessary for him to understand and remember). I was really uncomfortable with this because it seemed very condescending. When I tentatively shared my hesitancy with the rebbetzin, she seemed confounded.
“Whyyyy?” she said in that creepy, utterly perplexed, vowel-dragging intonation some rabbis and rebbetzins adopt when being questioned.
So I very hesitantly explained, asking her if maybe it could be interpreted as condescending?
She looked dumbstruck. “Whyyyy would he ever consider such a thing con-de-sceeeending?” she asked.
Suddenly, the implication seemed to be that there was something wrong with my husband, not with the method. I felt really bad that I’d inadvertently engaged in a form of lashon hara about my own husband.
Intimidated by her and disoriented by the sudden turn in the conversation, I tried to stammer out my thoughts on the matter, but I didn’t want to offend her. After all, she was a very chashuv person and she was taking the time to help out little ol’ me.
She replied by saying, “Well, I can’t think of what could possibly be condescending about asking a person to do that!” She paused, then said, “Ohhhh…maybe for a Sephardi man, you feel it’s condescending? Because his kavod is very important to him?”
Oh, this was just getting worse. No, that’s not what I was thinking at all! Now this conversation was turning into lashon hara about a whole group!
“No,” I said. “No, it’s not that at all.”
My mind rushed to find a good explanation. The truth is that I couldn’t imagine my 3rd-generation American liberal Ashkenazi father responding well to my mother telling him to parrot back whatever she just said, as if he was some kind of errant kindergartener or something. But I didn’t want to have my words twisted into lashon hara about my father—it was bad enough that it happened regarding my husband. Anyway, why was this suddenly turning into a cultural issue?
I took a deep breath and gave it my best shot:
“The truth is, I don’t think…um…I’m not sure if I would like to be talked to like that either… I mean, if someone would want to make sure I understood them, I…I’m not sure if I’d understand why they’d need me to do it like that. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say…”
Not terribly coherent, of course, but I was trying my best. By using myself as the example, I meant to convey that this wasn’t a gender or cultural issue. See, Ms. Rebbetzin? Even an Ashkenazi female might find it condescending.
Yet now the rebbetzin turned her beady eye on me. “Ohhhhh,” she said, knowingly—and distastefully. “Well.”
I squirmed. Apparently, I must be a gaavadik piece of dirt to consider something so innocuous to be so condescending.
(Now I know better, but that was then.)
Anyway, after some more melodramatic vowel-dragging, she convinced me that the method was just fine, if only I’d just get over my own (gaavah-based) reservations.
My perceptions were wrong, hers were right.
She was the big important FFB rebbetzin married to a chashuv rav and I was just a young stupid baal teshuvah girl from America.
She didn’t say that outright, but the message was clear. (And it was a common message I heard repeatedly from all different rabbis and rebbetzins in different versions throughout the years.)
So next time my husband and I needed to sort some things out, I took a deep breath and asked him to repeat back to me what I just said.
And guess what? There really is no nice and uncondescending way to do exactly this.
And guess what? He was offended! And he didn’t know what I wanted from him.
Finally, I apologized and explained where I got it from and he just sighed and grumbled something about interfering rebbetzins.
In the end, he wasn't upset with me, he was upset with her.
Newsflash! Rabbis are For Chickens
As his mother once told me, “In Morocco, we [Jewish women] didn’t go ask rabbis and rebbetzins all the time—we already knew all by ourselves!”
She also meant that women turned to other women who intimately knew and cared about them for advice and even halachic direction.
(Just as an aside, my mother-in-law was also perplexed that women needed official sessions with a certified instructor to learn about taharat hamishpacha. You do need proper instruction for the actual halacha of it, but the hashkafic aspects of these classes can be problematic…)
Several Ashkenazi Yerushalmi women told me, “We have a saying: ‘Rabbis are for chickens!’ "
"If you have a specific question about Jewish law (like a question about the kashrus of a chicken you’re preparing to eat), you ask a rabbi. But advice? How can he know what you—especially a woman!—is supposed to do? Is he in your situation? Is he in your head? Does he know what you experience? How can he really know what you need to do?”
But I’d been indoctrinated that consulting with rabbis and rebbetzins for advice (not halacha, but mere advice) is the age-old Jewish tradition (it’s not) and that something terrible will happen if I don't consult with someone greater and wiser than I (not true).
So it was hard to let go of.
Anyway, I went back to the rebbetzin and as tactfully as I could, explained what happened. She was nonplussed to hear that her method was indeed found insulting.
“Ahhhh,” she said sagely. “I guess it’s because he’s Sephaaaardi. Noooow, I understand. Okay. Everything’s clear. This just won’t work with Sephardi men; they can’t handle it. Okay, fine. I just learned something new.”
It’s seems so ridiculous that I fell for her garbage back then.
It’s such obviously passive-aggressive sniping and sinat chinam.
We're the Chosen People, Not the Cloned People
It really messes with your head.
ESPECIALLY the verses and Gemaras taken out of context and skewed to fit the speaker’s agenda. Many, if not most, of the people quoting stuff supposedly about and for women have not actually looked into how the mefarshim themselves interpret these sources.
In addition, for a lot of things, but especially for child-rearing and marriage, two people cannot apply the same whole chunk of advice or shitah.
Yes, many people offering courses and classes and advice really do want to help. And yes, you can definitely pick up some good stuff in what they have to offer.
But you’ll also get some head-wrecking stuff in the mix.
And depending on you, your spouse, your child(ren), and your specific situation (health, finances, community, or anything else), the stuff that worked wonders for someone else may slam you into an abyss that is very hard to scrape out of.
We’re all too different and even more essentially, we all have different tikkunim to rectify via our relationships and roles in life.
In a nutshell, you aren't necessarily supposed to be doing what your neighbor is doing and she's not necessarily supposed to be doing what you're supposed to be doing.
Don't Trust Agendas...Trust God!
At this point, I’m very, very picky about shiurim and what I read. It’s very hard to be a rabbi or rebbetzin and I know because I’ve actually been a rebbetzin for a blessedly short time. And, to put it politely, it’s extremely challenging to maintain your spiritual equilibrium in such a position. (I’m not talking about gadolei hador, but regular rabbis and rebbetzins of a community, pulpit, or kiruv.)
Baruch Hashem, God made many of these people so unbearable that I ended up turning directly to Him and to classic Torah sources (like Duties of the Heart and so on) in way I wouldn't have otherwise.
And because Western society has become increasingly agenda-driven, it’s hard for people from such societies to keep their agendas off their hashkafah.
(Getting agenda-free takes a lot of emuna and self-awareness. Ask me how I know...)
And the following is very important to realize:
The classic Torah books and commentaries were written by tzaddikim.
Your rabbi or rebbetzin may be a good person (or maybe not...), but it is VERY unlikely that he or she is a tzaddik.
So who is actually going to impart to you true wisdom?
- The tzaddik?
- Or the guy with a certificate that only proves he's got good academic skills...and his wife?
So, with a few exceptions, I try to stick to stuff that was written a couple of centuries or more ago. And I’m much happier now!
Anyway...what are wives supposed to be doing?
Davening! Praying! Tefillah!
Yes, they also talk about actual behavioral things, like nurturing, honoring, and forgiving your husband, and treating him with patience.
(And their standards for how husbands should treat their wives are even higher their standards are for wives. But we’re talking about the wifely role right now.)
At the same time, the Sages were also very aware that there are difficult, temperamental, and even abusive husbands.
(For example, the Pele Yoetz states that in the case of a very abusive husband, it is “fitting for whoever has the authority to punish [the abusive husband] to the best of their ability” and that it is important to help an abused wife get divorced if that’s what she wants because it is “a great mitzvah” to “save the oppressed from the hand of their oppressors.”)
Regardless of how good or successful he is or isn't, the Sages emphasize davening for your husband.
Rav Eliezer Papo in particular expounds on this in Pele Yoetz:
She should pour out her soul before God day after day. Perhaps God will be gracious and her prayers will bear fruits to return her husband to the good path. Then she too will find menucha/rest.
Included in the love of a woman for her husband is that she should pray for him before God. Since the prayer of a woman emanates from her tender heart and her tears are near, if she calls out to God from the innermost walls of her heart, certainly her prayers will bear fruits.
A woman must also pray for her children because in the well-being of her husband and children, she will find peace and well-being.
And who will have pity on them more than she?
Rav Papo's words are very moving.
It doesn’t matter whether your husband is best thing that ever happened to you or if he’s just a heavy millstone around your neck or anything in between.
A wife’s tefillah for her husband is so incredibly powerful.
Even if you're very happy in your marriage and couldn't ask for more, you should still daven for the welfare of your husband in his life and health.
Notice that the Pele Yoetz assumes that no one can feel more compassion for a woman’s husband and children than she.
Not her husband’s rav, not his siblings, not his best friends, not his rosh yeshivah, and not even his own parents--HER.
This isn't always true, of course, but it often is true.
So if your husband is doing well, you can talk to Hashem about him succeeding even more. And if your husband is faltering in some area—whether it’s his livelihood, his physical health, his mental health, his character, his Torah learning, his spirituality, or anything else—you can have some heart-to-heart talks with Hashem about that.
You both benefit.
Now, it needs to be acknowledged: We don’t know what our tikkunim are exactly.
Oftentimes, pouring out your heart to Hashem leads to improved circumstances in your marriage, but sometimes it results in a divorce with a happy second marriage later on.
But then again, some people don’t seem to get a break.
There are no guarantees.
But looking around, I do see that turning to Hashem on behalf of your husband is much more effective in every way than all these books and classes and “experts.”
May Hashem grant feelings of true love and unity throughout the entire Jewish Nation.