Musings on the Passing of an Isha Gedolah


by Dovid Kornreich

I was waiting until the passing of her Sheloshim to see what the blogworld would have to say about Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky’s life and unique impact on the Chareidi world before I ventured to speak my mind. To my surprise, there was nothing on the web beyond the regular online Jewish news outlet coverage and obituary-type blogposts.

Well, perhaps it is too premature to evaluate the Rebbetzin’s historical impact on Chareidi society so soon after her sudden passing, and perhaps it is inappropriate to first discuss sociology and not first express the depth of the loss of such a woman to us.

But in light of the raging blog-controversy over Open Orthodoxy’s feminist agenda, it seems that a post on the subject is timely, relevant, and important.

It is too important to let the moment pass without taking the opportunity to highlight the deep contrast in the different Orthodox societies’ responses to feminism — which the late Rebbetzin brought subtly into focus.

It is my hope that this seemingly aloof analysis of Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s unique position in Jewish society will be a catalyst to further admiration of Chareidi society, dispel harmful myths, and contribute to making a Kiddush Hashem.

I’ll begin with a phrase found in last week’s Haftarah portion from Melochim 2 perek 4, describing the Isha Hashunamis as an “Isha Gedolah.”

We’re not used to describing a special Jewish women as an “Isha Gedolah” in the same sense that we describe a special Jewish man as a Gadol. But Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s influence on Jewish women shared many facets with the impact of a modern-day male gadol.

My primary fact source for this analysis comes from the page-and-a-half tribute to Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s memory, printed in the English Hamodia newspaper of October 27, 2011 on pages A18-A19.

The tribute contains some very striking paragraph titles. Alongside the more predictable “Loving Care” and “Tefillah and Shmiras Hamitzvos”, we also have “Ahavas HaTorah”, “A Mother, a Leader” and “Segulos and Mofsim”.

To me, the title “leader”–even if juxtaposed to the title “mother”– is not one that you will find in many descriptions of gedolim’s wives. I am hard pressed to think of another Orthodox woman in modern times billed as “a leader” other than Sarah Schenirer.

But a leader she was. After the article details the Rebbetzin’s illustrious lineage and spouse, it goes on to state that:

Yet she was a great woman in her own right, and her brochos were known to be fulfilled. When her husband, Rav Chaim once felt ill, he travelled to his father-in-law Rav Elyashiv, in Yerushalayim to ask for a bracha. Rav Elyashiv was surprised: “Ask your wife, my daughter for a bracha–her brachos are worth more than mine!”
“The Rebbetzin would often relate stories of her grandfather, HaRav Aryeh Levin, zt”l, who showed her special affection. As a young child, she accompanied her grandfather when he went to visit the prisoners.

Women of all Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance flocked to her constantly for segulos, brochos, eitzos, and chizuk. Exactly as a male gadol serves the wider Jewish public. Her tiny kitchen was a “must visit” for American seminary classes in Israel and American female Chareidi tourists, not unlike geldolim’s homes are for visiting American bochurim and male tourists.

I also noticed that there was a “kennes hisorrerus” organized to eulogize the Rebbetzin on her sheloshim, and more gatherings in her honor are being planned. This is something that is often done for men who have made a significant communal impact, and I have not seen one arranged in honor of any woman’s memory inside Yerushalayim besides this.

But the point that needs to be made is that, like the anonymity of the “Shunamite woman” whose name is never mentioned in Tanach–even by those who are directly addressing her– Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s picture is not being sold in any photo store in Geulah, nor is it hanging on anyone’s wall in their living room. She was best known for her segula of davening for people while performing the uniquely feminine mitzvah of Hafroshas Challah.

So although she was a Great Jewish Personality, her great impact was felt exclusively among women, in her kitchen, doing women’s mitzvos, and being devoted to her husband and his Torah as a model rebbetzin.

All this shows me that although the times perhaps demand that women be given more public consideration and prominence in Jewish life than they have in the past, there is an Isha Gedolah of the highest pedigree and impeccable credentials imaginable, who can serve as a role-model for how do to it right.

Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky has shown us how Orthodox women can have a profound religious impact upon the greater Jewish world without compromising one iota on the values and attitudes of tznius and deference to Da’as Torah that the Chareidi world takes so much pride in.

Other Orthodox societies tend to navigate this path with an inherent tension, if not flat contradiction between tznius and women’s publicity and spiritual influence. They seem to take the principled stand that she must to be able to address men and women in public as well as in private, in speeches, classes, eulogies, drashot, and various religious functions, or else she isn’t going to be taken seriously.

They have much to learn from the late Rebbitzin indeed.

So yes, Virginia, times have changed. And Yiddishkeit does not ignore these changes indefinitely. But how one responds to these changes makes all the difference in the world.

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Dovid Kornreich
3 years 9 months ago

I would just like to clarify that for the record: this post about Rebbetzin Kanievsky was exclusively about her serving as a female role model for dispensing spiritual guidance, wisdom, and inspiration to a significant following. It was not meant to hold her up as an inspirational Jewish role-model for the professional working Jewish man or woman.
I apologize for the confusion and being side-tracked by the commentors who were frustrated by this post due to the fact that such role-models for working men and women are not found in the Rabbinate or “Rebbetzinate”.

Reb. Dr. R.
3 years 9 months ago

Rabbi Kornreich, on Nov 20 you wrote “So I regret not having rounded out the picture to show that indeed the Rebbetzin is a multi-faceted role model for all Jewish women in all circumstances to emulate.” YOU were the one who stated that the late Rebbetzin was a role model for ALL Jewish women to emulate after noting her experience as a working woman out there in the secular world. You said “ALL” Jewish women, not “SOME Jewish women”, not “ALL Jewish women EXCEPT high powered CEOs which …are NOT typical of a frum Jewish woman” but I appreciate the fact that on Dec 19 you have amended your comments to “serve as a role-model for other women who have typical experiences.” So it is not ALL of us after all, is it?

By the way, the scenarios I provided are not harrowing experiences of CEOs. Firstly, no CEO would consider these situations “harrowing.” These are ordinary, everyday experiences for any CEO. Secondly, they are not relegated solely to CEOs (nor to women, as Guest on Dec 22 noted). Look around you. Women (frum women included) are assuming leadership positions across the corporate world. These experiences are not solely a CEOs. We have frum women who are lawyers, VPs, sales & marketing directors, senior managers, account executives. What you describe as an anomaly “NOT typical of a frum Jewish woman in the workforce” may not be be such an anomaly, after all, but we won’t belabor that point. Let’s say that these women(lawyers, account executives, VPs, managers, corporate executives..pick a title or role) who are negotiating deals, hashing out contractual details, working around client-sensitive situations, enforcing regulatory compliance, financing projects or often the public face of their companies ARE an anomaly. As you so noted above, the late Rebbetzin is “a role-model for other women who have TYPICAL experiences.” Thank you for clarifying that point. Now who is going to be a role model for the growing number of frum women who you think are “not typical?” I can certainly tell you it is not going to be a Rebbetzin Kanievsky. Consider the growing number of frum women in leadership roles, we are indeed challenged by finding that role model and perhaps find our inspiration and support among many women who exemplify different traits or have experienced a range of different life situations. Just please don’t foist upon us a figure as role model who couldn’t relate to an hour in our “non-typical” day, special as she indeed must have been in her own way.

3 years 9 months ago

I agree with Dovi Kornreich that the harrowing experiences of high powered CEOs are not really typical of frum Jewish women. But they are all too typical, in scale, for many frum men. Which begs the point made earlier, which I see is being pointedly not addressed: Forget the Rebbetzin; is RABBI Kanevsky – or any charedi rabbi – or indeed, ANY Rabbi who may learn Torah but has no exposure to the working world; are THEY really role models worthy of emulation?

Dovid Kornreich
3 years 9 months ago

Tell me how she managed to be the public face of a Fortune 500 company, negotiate sensitive deals by peddling influence and commanding authority, and maintain perfect sangfroid under stressful and politically explosive situations, from the safety of her kitchen, without being influenced by her environment. Tell me how she managed, from behind her secretary’s desk, to negotiate seven figure deals with the VPs and C-level executives of other Fortune 500 companies.

It seems to be your comments have been written with more of an intention to mock than anything else.
I don’t see the relevance in describing nightmare scenarios of high powered executives trying to maintain their mentchlechkeit and erlichkeit when the answers are applicable to both Jewish men and women equally. My article is exploring the parameters of the Rebbetzin’s life as they relate to situations which are unique to women.

Although I am not aware of any of the details of Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s experience in the work force, I would surmise that hers was typical enough to serve as a role-model for other women who have typical experiences. I would venture to say that the harrowing experiences of a high powered CEO which you described are NOT typical of a frum Jewish woman in the work-force. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

3 years 9 months ago

Dr E has said it well. The tone and numbers of blogs related to the “cost-shifting” of tuition from those to cannot pay their fair share to those who are overly taxed to pay the full tuition (which is above the average cost per child) is coming under greater scrutiny. It’s just not fair and cannot be sustained into the future.
Both the yeshivas and girls schools are talking double talk. They preach that “Money is not important, but pay your tuition’s.” “Have a large family but pay your bills.” So what is the answer:
1. The schools must “open their books” to outside financial audits.
2. There must be a minimum tuition with no exceptions (ala Lakewood).
3. The emphasis on universal Kollel must be reevaluated. Is everyone kollel material?
4. Those able to pay full tuition need some form of tax break. Why isn’t the tuition cost above the real cost per child considered as a “donation.”

Just my thoughts.