Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Audience with the Rebbitzen

Picture taken by Judy Merrims

We had an opportunity to meet with Rebbitzen Denah Weinberg.   In case you did not know, she is the founder and dean of Eyaht, a College of Jewish Studies for Women.  The Rebbitzen was born in Queens and was the youngest child of 8, being born into a rabbinic family. Oh, and did I mention she is the widow of Rabbi Noah Weinberg (ZT"L), the person who founded AISH? 

The ride to hear Rebbitzen Weinberg was a bit erratic.  We were running late, and the group had to split into two.  The driver was whipping this way and that way.  We met in the Eyaht building across the street from where she lives. This is located in the Kiryat Sanz neighborhood, a Haredi Jewish neighborhood located in Jerusalem.

The Rebbitzen is a small woman with a kind but stern face.  She wore a flowing dress and a light blue headscarf, wrapped in a turban-like manner.  Though she was soft-spoken and her words carefully chosen, her voice carried with it authority, wisdom and strength. And a little spunk. Yes, I said spunk.

We entered the somewhat barren room with old tables pushed together in a long rectangular shape.  Plastic chairs pushed in, simple snacks of chips and ruggala, white walls with taped, hand-made messages.  People shuffled in, took their seats, and we all sat a bit uncomfortably awaiting the unknown.

In my head, after having driven through the neighborhood and imagined what her life was possibly like, I painted the Rebbitzen into a little box, nice and neat. It wasn't a bad box, but it was probably a bit stereotypical in nature.  The evening was full of surprises.

The format was question and answer sprinkled with a few stories.

The thing I guess that surprised me the most about this audience with the Rebbitzen was how fiercely independent she seemed, and how her answers were female-empowering.  I guess I expected this ultra-Orthodox woman to have some sort of "traditional religious" view of a woman. Not so much!

I am really unsure how to transition this blog entry into some of her answers. So, I will just list below the things I remember and hopefully, I am quoting them as accurately as possible.  If I fail at that front, hopefully I will have caught the spirit and basic gist of what she was conveying.  If I fail at even that, please email me so that I can correct anything I am misremembering.

  • She told a story of her daughter calling to say that she loved her and thanking her for never telling her that her job was to do what her husband said.  What made her make this call?  After discovering that many of her friends' mothers told them upon getting married that they now were to listen to their husbands/do what their husbands wanted.  The daughter called the Rebbitzen to thank her for never telling her that. 
  • This was a reoccurring theme--that we as women are responsible for our own behavior, observance, responses and decisions in life. Our jobs are not to do what our husbands want, especially as it relates to our sense of commandedness from G-d.  This was no way conveyed in a disrespectful way toward men, or in the spirit of creating friction in the home.  It was simply fact.  I imagine that few of us who are not frum from birth would even think that it would be our jobs to listen and do what our husbands tell us to do.  Even so, I do know quite a few modern women who really do give their husbands that kind of power over them whether or not they want to admit it. To a young ffb girl who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox setting, I imagine those words would be equally as refreshing.
  • What does the Rebbitzen recommend to those struggling with husbands and mothers and others who speak lashon hara (gossiping) in front of the children?  Should we call that person on it in front of our children so they know it is unacceptable? Should we pull the children aside later to explain that we are not supposed to do that?  No, not according to the Rebbitzen.  We should remain silent. Ignore the behavior. Do not call the person out, right then nor privately to the children.  When we notice that gossiping is not going on, and when we notice kind speech, we should point it out to the children.  When the positive and correct behavior is being exhibited by anyone, we should praise it.
  • Having trouble deciding if one should continue in a particular path that is failing? Unsure with how to proceed with regard to a task, goal or aspect of life?  Examine your motives, and if it brings you closer to Hashem, proceed.  If it take you further away, re-evaluate.  The right decision is the one that brings you closer.  
  • First step to becoming more observant?  (I was expecting the answer to be something like lighting candles.)  Say the Shema when waking, before bed, when you think of it.  She went on to discuss this idea of incorporating those things which are not public displays of observance first.  Those things that allow you to grow as a person, but which do not create conflict with others.  Things which are internal to you.  
  • At one point, when her advice was to speak to someone with her interests at heart, like her rabbi, the woman explained she had spoken to her rabbi who didn't get it.  The Rebbitzen said something to the effect of this:  "I am a rabbi. I may not have a plaque on the wall, but I am a rabbi. You need to find that person who has your best interest at heart, who understands your situations, and speak to that person, that teacher, that rabbi."  She implied that one should seek out someone with knowledge/who is learned, who is G-dly, who has your interests at heart -- even a women acting in the position of rabbi/teacher -- can and should be consulted. The way that she expressed this (and I am way butchering it) was so empowering, so wide...I did not expect that from her. Pleasantly surprised!
Meeting with the Rebbitzen was everything I expected it to be and everything I didn't expect it to be.  I could have sat at that rickety old  table for hours, listening to her consider questions, thoughtfully answering them with insight, experience and wisdom.  It was one of my favorite moments in Israel for sure.  

Picture taken by Judy Merrims

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