Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein and the Ordination of Women Rabbis


women-rabbisBy Rabbi Avi Shafran

This year, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, the 25th day of Adar, fell out in the thick of the recent brouhaha over an Orthodox rabbi’s conferring of a rabbinical title on a woman.

For anyone who knew Rebbetzin Braunstein, or even of her, the coincidence carries a lesson.

Mrs. Braunstein was a “rebbetzin” because she married a respected rov. Had she been married to a layman, though, and known simply as a “Mrs.”, she would have been no less a gift to Klal Yisroel, no less influential, no less a mechaneches, no less a Jewish leader. It was not her title that garnered her the reverence of thousands of women of all ages around the world. It was, rather, her words, her care, her deeds, her teaching, her guidance – and her example.

She left the world in only her sixty-first year but she touched more lives, taught more Torah, inspired more people than most people granted decades more of life. She served as principal of a Sefardi girls high school in Brooklyn – her reputation spanned many boundaries – lectured extensively to varied groups of girls and women on theological, practical and halachic issues; and counseled and inspired countless others. And when she was taken, some of the most respected rabbinical personages in New York eulogized her.

I only met her twice, both times when she brought groups of students to Agudath Israel’s offices to hear a presentation. I knew at the time that she was the sister of my dear friend and colleague Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, today Agudath Israel’s executive vice president. But had I known just who she herself was I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable speaking in the presence of someone so accomplished.

Rebbetzin Braunstein’s achievements were not the product of some struggle to be perceived as a Jewish leader, or of a struggle to be perceived at all. She was a noble Jewish woman who understood well what the Jewish ideal of tzenius entailed, not just in dress and conduct but in life. She simply learned at a young age that she had talents that could be turned to good, to spread Jewish values and Jewish knowledge; and so she felt the obligation to use them. But she didn’t revel in the renown or the respect she earned. In fact, she preferred the title “Mrs.” to “Rebbetzin.” She would sometimes say that if everyone in the next world was given an hour to return to this one, some would surely use the hour to study Torah or perform a particular mitzvah or recite Tehillim. She, though? She would head straight for the kitchen to make a hearty soup for her children and grandchildren.

Not an image that would sit well, I imagine, with those who aspire to titles like “Maharat” or “Rabba”, the natty neologisms being chanted these days by some. The contrast between those chanters’ ideals and Rebbetzin Braunstein’s example is stark.

At a recent conference of a group called the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the woman on whom a rabbinic title was conferred spoke of the “fight to confirm women as spiritual leaders”; called women Orthodox clergy a “dream” to be “vocalized”; insisted that Jewish institutions “must train women” for the role; and implied that Orthodox women currently lack “a voice in shaping and contributing to our community as spiritual leaders.”

Tell that to the thousands who were ably taught and guided by Zahava Braunstein. Or the many thousands more who have received, and continue to receive, no less instruction and guidance from hundreds of other Orthodox women teachers, Rebbetzins and Mrs.’s across the country and around the world.

There are many reasons why every recognized posek across the Orthodox spectrum has rejected the concept of a woman rabbi. Among the reasons are objections based on particular technical requirements of a rabbinic role; others are based on those decisors’ judgment of what is sociologically proper in Yiddishkeit – a judgment of no less halachic import to a truly observant Jew. But what became apparent to me, listening to the presentation and reading reports of the JOFA conference, is that, beyond all those valid concerns, the entire enterprise is misguided in its essence.

Because the motivation of those brandishing the cause of women rabbis – notwithstanding all the high-sounding rhetoric about filling a need and benefiting the community- seems clearly to be the shattering of a perceived “glass ceiling,” an “advancement” of “women’s rights,” an end to “discrimination.”

The rabbah-rousers do apparently seek to serve – but their master seems to be feminism, not Judaism.

The Gemara (Kesuvos 67b) tells of how Mar Ukva discovered to his dismay that, in the pursuit of a tzeddakah enterprise, his wife had merited a miracle that had not been granted him.

The wise woman explained to her rabbi husband: “I’m in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give [to the poor collecting alms]. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours.”

Mrs. Ukva understood something most of us – men and women alike – don’t always sufficiently appreciate, that what counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles but what we do with them.

That what matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport but the honor we earn.

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  1. What matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport, but the honor we earn. That’s beautiful. So why bother giving smicha to anyone, men included? They should just be tzaddikim like Rebbetzin Braunstein and be happy. No need for a title.

  2. Interesting spin. But maybe the simple title of rabbi is not the honorific, it’s a title so you know what you’re getting, e.g. D.O., M.D., etc. It’s all the rest (hagaon hatzadik etc.) that’s window dressing.

    And another thing. Traditionally (not that I know because it’s been about 40 years since I’ve been on that side of the mechitza and I can’t say I noticed) when a person is asked to be shaliach tzibur he’s supposed to demur, even if ultimately he’ll take it to show that he’s getting the job done, not showing off.

    And you may also know of men who had pretty serious semicha but weren’t poskim but preferred to go by Mr.

  3. What if a woman wants to take care of the sick in the hopsitals, and she needs a Rabbinic title to qualify for the position of Chaplain, because otherwise the hospital will not allow?

  4. #4 You have a good question but listen to what you are saying. She wants a positions that requires a rabbi. She can take care of all the sick people she wants but not as a rabbi.

  5. to #1:
    The title “Rov” is much more than an “honorific” it conveys that he is “licenced” to be a “morah hora’ah” a leader,in every sense of the word.Our Torah is timeless,to attempt to give it a “modern spin” is simplistic,to say the very least.

  6. Mrs. Braunstein taught us how to be jewish women in every sense of the word. We don`t need names and titles to lift our self esteem since be know our mission in life and are proud and very happy to be doing it as is.