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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33 comments to Musings on the Passing of an Isha Gedolah

  • L. Oberstein

    Dovid Kornreich seems to be saying that the fact that no chareidi magazine printed a photograph of her is a sign of her modesty. Interestingly, there is a picture of Sarah Shnirer but when these same magazines print articles they don’t use it. When they write about deceased women, they show a picture of her husband, but not of her. Is that tzniyus? Where in our sources do we see that a properly dressed woman is not to be pictured? I am scared that Dovid Kornreich and all who agree with this definition are editing women out, while relegating them to the back of the bus, the closed room and the presence of other women but not to be seen by men. That is Saudi Arabia, not Israel and that is not normative Judaism.

  • Shalom

    Rabbi Oberstein – perhaps there are those who treat women as 2nd class and use Tznius as an excuse, but there is an ideal of Tznius of which DK describes. You may twist the intentions of the Chareidi media and culture to serve, what I fear is, your agenda, but I’m sure you’ve met many women who specifically do not want their picture in the public outlets, nor do they want to address an audience of men and women. There are also many women who would prefer not to see pictures of other women in magazines with a male readership. Our sources don’t address the issue of published pictures of women, but they do say Kol Kvuda Bas Melech Pnima – the ideal that DK describes in the Rebbetzin. I do want to hear your opinion, but please keep in mind the reality in Chareidi culture, and in Torah Hashkafa, of which you are certainly familiar.

  • Dr. E

    The portrayals of the Rebbitzen z”l which have appeared since her premature passing are moving and show that her life was infused with absolute Kedusha, Tzniyus, and Avodas Hashem. She was a confidante to many and was sort of a female equivalent of a “Chassidishe Rebbe”. This was her tafkid and in it she excelled.

    However, I take issue with Dovid’s connecting-the-dots to an issue that is really apples and oranges—that is through a foil of Feminism and Modern Orthodoxy. The implication is that women’s accomplishments are to be relegated to just the spiritual and behind-the-scenes. Surely, the current Kollel System’s pushing women into the workplace, whether in corporate environments or frum ones, with the apparent acquiescence of the powers that be, shows that women are operating out of their homes. While not labeled “Modern Orthodoxy”, it is obviously a manifestation of an acceptable gender role of Orthodoxy in the modern world.

    One need not venture into the world of JOFA, YCT, IRF, Yeshivat Maharat or other institutions affiliated with the FL to find women with high levels of intellect, academic acumen, and ambition to make a difference. There is a new generation of women who, while faithful to tzniyus and Halacha and well “within the pale”, have accomplished great things in Torah and professional pursuits. They have contributed to not only the female world but to society (and family income). Some hold positions of lay and professional leadership, whether accompanied by formal titles of not. We even saw recently, where a young frum woman be awarded with the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, which hopefully is a springboard to great things. We now have frum female Attorneys, MD’s, Engineers, Educators, all other professions who have confidently and successfully balanced their professional contributions with their roles of wives and mothers. In other contexts, frum, tzanua women have managed to play key communal roles which make communities better for all of us.

    So, there are a variety of paths that women (and men) can take in life towards fulfilling their mission within a context informed by Kedusha, Tzniyus, and Avodas Hashem. In many (and one might argue most) cases, the path will make it totally appropriate for their pictures or names to appear in a publication, that will recognize, inform, and hopefully motivate others. In other cases (perhaps the 1% to which Dovid cites), a path which is more veiled, might be what is necessary to hit the mark to accomplish those goals.

  • lacosta

    while i understand how the rebetzin can and did serve as a role model for hareidiyot , and an isha gedola to them, i wonder if this gdola-in-the-kitchen-and-house will in any way speak to the MO community , whose needs, goals and aspiratiosn are so different.

    eg we could put up a life profile of the yoatzot who serve MO communities around the world for women’s halacha issues, yet their function is quite verboten in haredi circles [one can ask whether on the ground they service haredi women as well , in spite of official pronouncements]. as admirable as such women are , they are not a ‘role model’ for haredi communities. it may be that http://forward.com/articles/146740/ is a more crucial role model for non -haredim : how to be on campus [which will happen anyways, and it won’t be a campus the hanhala of Bais Yakov recommends] yet stay frum ….

  • Shades of Gray

    Re. Charedi publications and pictures of women in biographical articles, the following is an excerpt from a letter to the editor by Esther Reisman in the 12/30/10 Flatbush Jewish Journal in response to another letter which criticized the publication:

    “It may be a good idea for your newspaper to adhere to that which has become standard in Charedi journalism. It may be a wise Geder and it is certainly preferable to the rampant exploitation of women in the secular media. However, it is not totally healthy for us as a community when we forget the difference between a Geder and an Issur.

    The Jewish Observer, a respected Torah journal, has always included tasteful and modest pictures of women, when appropriate, without trampling on tznius or incurring the wrath of the Chareidi community. Artscroll biographies have always included select photographs as well. At a recent Shuvu dinner, the video presentation included moving accounts by Baalos Teshuva…There were many Gedolei Yisroel present. I am not aware that any of these great Rabbonim expressed disapproval…

    As the surrounding society becomes increasingly degenerate, we have chosen to erect more and more safeguards. However, let us not forget the content as well as the outer form of these sensitivities. It is ironic that as we seek to become more and more insular,
    we risk becoming a society of “Yentas”. As we limit the range of athletic and cultural outlets, is it possible that the activities and indiscretions of our neighbors have become an increasingly popular source of discussion and entertainment?

    At the same time that we invoke the value of modesty, in not printing portraits of women, our publications risk violating these standards in more profound ways. After all, each publication must come up with new topics week after week, to inspire, inform and most of all entertain the community. The search for novelty and variety creates a certain temptation to print articles that shock and titillate. This poses a greater challenge to our standards of Kedusha than the occasional portrait of an elderly Rebbetzin.

    It is a wonderful thing when we seek to raise community standards of modesty. At the same time let us not lose our common sense. Above all, let us not forget that tact, restraint, privacy and respect for others remain inherent to true tznius.”

  • noam stadlan

    All the above critiques are quite on target. It is quite pathetic that the author has made a polemic out of the life of a righteous woman. The model of life she chose certainly is not to be criticized by anyone. On the other hand, there are plenty of other models that are available for the woman who is shomer Torah and Mitzvot. Is the author saying that someone like Rabbanit Henkin is not following an appropriate path, since she lectures to men and women and her picture has been published? Is she not a leader? The problem is not that the modern Orthodox object to the path taken by Rebbetzin Kanievsky, but that the Chareidim object to paths chosen by the MO. In addition, setting up straw people such as “open orthodoxy’s feminist agenda” isn’t helpful. I am surprised that Cross-Current’s usually high editorial standards allowed this article to be published.

    On a side note, I suggest that the paper consider using the phrase “brachot were believed to be fulfilled”, rather “her brachot were known to be fulfilled”, unless they have actual proof(which would be difficult, as either it entails knowing exactly why God did certain things, or employing statistical methods to show that the outcomes were unlikely to be due to chance).

  • Aharon Haber

    If the post had only said that Rebitzen Kanievsky was a model of humility and care for all of Klal Yisrael – and that all streams of Judaism did and could learn from her example I assume that everyone would agree – even those like me who until recently knew nothing about her life.

    But to say that she was a role-model for how do to it right – that is a polemic, and one I would not agree with. There is much (I assume not knowing her) to learn from how she did things and what she thought – but she was not THE model of how to do things. In fact if I had a daughter I would hope for a different life for her – achieving in other areas (as well) as in modesty and ahavat yisrael. I would hope that she would achieve and appreciate learning at the highest levels – secular and divrei kedusha – because I know that is where I find my greatest pleasure. Why wouldnt I want it for my daughter? A life without that appreciation and achievement , is a life not completely fulfilled.

    Who would embody all those qualities – humility, intelligence, leadership, accomplishment – a role model for BOTH male and female Orthodox Jewry? I guess Nechama Leibowitz zt”l comes to mind. Who in my mind is also a counter example to:

    “I am hard pressed to think of another Orthodox woman in modern times billed as “a leader” other than Sarah Schenirer.”

    and

    “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.”

    Nechama Leibowitz had many thousands of talmidim – male and female, wrote many sefrei kedusha which still are widely read, had seforim written in her memory, and as quoted in the Jerusalem Post at the time:

    “In accordance with Leibowitz’s request, she was buried in an inconspicuous part of the cemetery at Har Hamenuhot in a simple ceremony with no eulogies. And in accordance with her instructions, the only inscription on her tombstone will read, “Nehama Leibowitz: teacher.”

    Now C”V should we compare one great person to another. I am sure we can learn many things from each. But if we were looking for a role model for more Modern Orthodox sensibilities, I think we would need to look no further.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    Re: omission of female photos in Chareidi media.
    This was not the point being made at all. The point was that the late Rebbetzin was able to have an enormous impact on an entire generation of women without ever having her face published. Her fame spread far and wide entirely from mouth to ear without the need for any serious media publicity. I see this as a remarkable accomplishment–for a high profile personality to maintain a low profile and not attract attention to herself.

    Re: Different standards of tznius:
    I’m not discussing tznius in terms of muttar or assur. That is a community-based issue which changes with local custom and local poskim (if the sheilah is ever asked). But what I am discussing is where each community is located on the absolute scale of “living in a tzenua manner” –generally defined by how well someone keeps a low profile and does not attract attention to one’s self. (This value is relevant to both men and women from either the opposite gender or the same gender, by the way.)

    A lower or higher rating on the absolute value scale doesn’t imply assur vs. muttar; it is simply a lower vs. higher rating. I don’t see how one can make the argument that women who address men in public should get the same absolute rating as a woman who only publicly addresses other women just because she has “different aspirations” or wants to make “professional contributions”.
    I want to repeat and emphasize that I’m not discussing muttar and assur. But more often than not, these aspirations and contributions are willy-nillly a compromise of one’s tznius to some degree. Perhaps a necessary and acceptable compromise, but a compromise it is.

    It may be uncomfortable to receive a lower rating, but instead of responding with hostile defensiveness, perhaps one should acknowledge the constructive well-intentioned criticism (just as I accept constructive, well-intentioned, unending laundry lists of criticisms of chareidi society from the blogosphere) and think of positive ways to address it and minimize the gap.

  • cohen y

    This must be the end of days…

    I actually find myself in agreement on this with Dr.Stadlan

  • Baruch Gitlin

    I’m just curious about one thing. Can a haredi woman today with extraordinary talent and ability make an impact as Rebbetzin Kanievsky did, if she is not married to a prominant rabbi? One of the other commentors mentioned Nehama Leibowitz. I would also add Tzipi Hotovely, a religious woman who is one of the most effective Knesset members today, and of course there are many others in the dati world without whose contributions the world would be much poorer. Would these women, most of whom are not married to prominant rabaaim, have any way to contribute their enormous talents and ability in the haredi world today?

  • Michael

    Baruch, two words: Sarah Schnierer.

    If I think of the prominent women in my community, I don’t think one of them is married to a prominent rabbi.

  • Abe71

    “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”

    It must be great to have be ability to view the World in such a way where there is no tension between the different roles that a person must fill. It must be great to be someone who can live in a closistered World and still fulfill their ultimate tafkid, whose tafkid in this World allows them to live in a way where there is no tension between what they must do to fulfill their potential, and what they must do as servants of Hashem. Tension does not mean that one ultimately bends-quite the contrary, it can make a person stronger. The reality for many people, is that in living their own reality they are in fact fulfilling their own highest purpose and avodas Hashem in this World. For all of the above a great persona such as the Rebbetzin Z”L is to be appreciated and even venerated, and for all she is a model in fulfilling her tafkid and in avodas Hashem. But only for the former group is she a true role model who shows the way towards fulfilling their own specific tafkid. The contrast in this article between the Rebbetzin Z”L and women in “other Orthodox societies” is really a comparison in many ways of apples and copy machines. An apple’s highest purpose may be to be eaten (maybe with honey on Rosh Hashana), and a copy machine’s highest purpose might be to copy notes on a shiur or publications of Torah. Both may be used for other permissiable purposes (a snack, charoses; to copy a business plan or a childs homework) At the highest level, one is not worth more than the other, except in very specific circumstances (on a desert Island the apple may be worth more; 2 minutes before a shiur the copier may be deperately needed). I feel this article (e.g. the statement that the Rebbetzin has shown how an Orthodox woman “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”)implicitly misses this. Many women, who are professionals or otherwise are in the work force show how an Orthodox woman “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, or at least to Tznius, because sometimes it seems Da’as Torah is intent on writing them out…

  • Robert Lebovits

    Dr. E Writes: “The implication is that women’s accomplishments are to be relegated to just the spiritual and behind-the-scenes.”
    “Just” the spiritual?
    lacosta writes: “I wonder if this gdola-in-the-kitchen-and-the-house will in any way speak to the MO community, whose needs, goals and aspirations are so different?”
    Aharon Haber writes: “But to say that she was a role-model for how to do it right – that is a polemic, and one that I would not agree with.”
    I see a thread in many of the comments to this post involving two fundamental ideas: 1) Pursuing a spiritually-focused life – elevating one’s ruchnius by engaging in certain personal practices and refining one’s spiritual sensibilities by limiting contact with offending influences – is seen to be no more auspicious or inspirational than a religious lifestyle of engagement in all aspects of living, even if that calls for routine exposure to stimuli that arouses coarser thoughts and feelings; and 2) The very idea that there is an objective standard that measures better versus lesser ways of Jewish living is improper as so many permutations and balances between ruchni and gashmi are equally valid. Both of these ideas are troubling.
    A basic premise of the Mesorah is that the generation at Sinai was on the highest plane of Kedusha and had the closest personal connection to HKBH. Ever since then our spiritual level has declined, generation by generation. It is precisely for this reason that we venerate our forebears and give higher authority to the rulings of older Torah leaders than to more recent ones. Hiskatnu hadoros refers primarily to our ruchnius – and is not a statement of praise. We are constantly admonished to be a Goy Kodosh, to sanctify our lives in all our action, and follow the models set by those who preceded us. The greatness the Torah urges us to pursue is not that which is found in the secular world but rather to reveal His Singularity by living a life devoted to Him (see Rav S. R. Hirsch on the pasukim in Hazeinu “B’Hanchil Goyim..” and “Ki Chelek L’Hashem..”).
    If our ancestors were greater than us, then a standard exists by which we can measure our true lives and we will find greater and lesser representations of Torah living. Rebbetzin Kanievsky ,a”h, was clearly one of the former. Most certainly there are others – Nechama Lebowitz and Sarah Schneirer (both were never married) have been mentioned as well. Their greatness stems from their commitment to the spiritually-focused life they led and taught others, not from exceptionality in the secular world. To suggest an equivalence between the model they present and the “successful” woman whose life is steeped in both worlds is simply untenable. While it is surely admirable to see any individual, man or woman, strive to live al pi Torah in all his/her endeavors, greatness is reserved for the few who make Hashem’s Will their will.
    In the modern world Kedusha is not a concept widely promoted. Most of us don’t do enough to make it a part of our daily affairs. In fact, we have become so inured to the unholy stimuli all around us that we are nearly oblivious to their toxic effects. As much as we may subscribe to the hashkafa that seeks to blend the secular with the holy by infusing the former with the latter, most of us are not very successful at it. Typically our lives are much more compartmentalized. We may be “frum profesionals” but that does not necessarily mean we are behaving like bnei Torah or bnos Yisroel in our occupational activities.
    Why can’t someone like Rebbetzin Kanievsky be a role model for all of us? Why can’t we learn from her tznius and purity to aspire to becoming like her no matter how we spend our days? Of course it’s more difficult to do when we open ourselves to influences of all sorts. But that is our choice – it doesn’t lessen our obligation to remain Kodosh. The idea that the MO woman (or man for that matter!) cannot appreciate and internalize the same aspirations for spiritual enhancement as the Rebbetzin and instead needs some lesser benchmark to strive for is a slur against the entire MO community and should be rejected.

  • Danny Rubin

    Kudos to all comments taking issue with the authors connection. Please indulge me as I add to this topic:

    “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.“
    Can Rebbetzin Kanievsky have done this alone without her society being funded by dual earning Orthodox Jews couples participating in a workplace which challenges the values and attitudes of tznius and deference to Da’as Torah that the Chareidi world takes so much pride in! ( Or is there some secret financing out there that I’m unaware of that makes Yeshiva/Kollel alumni into billionaires and precludes the need for women to enter the workplace?) Even if she never received funds directly, the institutions and infrastructure of her society must be getting money from somewhere. It is certainly admirable for an individual to isolate herself but what about the symbiotic role of women who face the work place and make it possible. It is unrealistic for these women to use Rebbetzin Kanievsky as a role model.

    “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.”

    People of all Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance flock to us with solicitations for funds for their causes. The only way we can consider responding is thanks to the women in the non-tznius workplace. These women need role models, leadership and unique resources that address their life and not isolated instances of people who can seclude themselves.

    “Her tiny kitchen was a “must visit” for American seminary classes.”
    In the context of this article I find this ironic .Please show me the many seminary students whose parents paid for this seminary experience by working in an environment with ideal values and attitudes of tznius that the Chareidi world takes so much pride in!
    Did anyone stop these seminary girls and tell them “ By the way, your seminary receives a great deal of money earned in the big “bad” world of corporate America – go back and stop this madness so we can all retreat to tiny kitchens!!
    Klal Yisrael is certainly privileged to have people such as Rebbetzin Kanievsky who can choose to isolate themselves but this can only be possible due to the sacrifices of people who don’t, which in these economic times include women. If we do not give these women the proper support and role models everyone loses.

  • Shalhevet

    “I’m just curious about one thing. Can a haredi woman today with extraordinary talent and ability make an impact as Rebbetzin Kanievsky did, if she is not married to a prominant rabbi?”

    Reb.Tzipporah Heller

  • Dovid Kornreich

    I guess I forgot to mention that the Hamodia article documented that as a single girl, Rebbetzin Kanievsky worked as a secretary in a secular/mixed office. It relayed that she took extra precautions to avoid being negatively influenced by the less-than-ideal but necessary exposure to that environment. (She took the job to support her father– Rav Eliyashiv–to allow him to remain learning.) The article doesn’t say if she also was employed after marriage to support her husband. Input from knowledgeable readers would be appreciated.

    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.
    Mesiras Nefesh and personal spiritual sacrifices made for Torah was one facet, and maintaining a low profile while having a tremendous public spiritual impact is another. The sophisticated reader should be able to discern that while they may not necessarily compliment the each other, neither of these facets serves to diminish the impact of the other.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    To Abe71:
    Many women, who are professionals or otherwise are in the work force show how an Orthodox woman “can have a profound religious impact upon the greater Jewish world without compromising one iota on the values and attitudes of tznius…

    I am genuinely intrigued. Can you point to any specific women in the work force who indeed show this, and can you describe how they are making a profound religious impact on the greater Jewish world?

  • L. Oberstein

    Nechama Lebowitz and Sarah Schneirer (both were never married)

    This is a factual error. Both were married later in life but had no children. Sarah Schneirer’s husband’s last name was Landau. Nechama Lebovitz married her uncle, I believe. He was much older and needed someone to care for him and, to avoid questions of yichud, she married him.
    In both cases, the husband was totally peripheral to their life’s mission.
    As far as righteous women, I think that many of our women who work to help pay tuition bills while maintaining a home, helping the children with homework, do chesed in the community and still find time to daven are tzidkoniyos. We can thank the two women mentioned above for inspiring women to aspire to intellectual challenges in Torah and to dream much bigger dreams than generations of illiterate but pious women, who never were given a chance to develope their intellect and ,in fact,were told that teaching them Torah would teach them “Tiflus” however one translates it.Satmar still doesn’t let girls learn Chumash inside in Hebrew. What does that have to do with modesty? That is a hollow reed on which to base a culture that believes that women cannot understand Jewish texts.
    I am sure that the Rebbetzin was saintly without question but her modesty is not a model for most women who seek spiritual and intellectual fulfilment within Judaism.

  • lacosta

    It may be uncomfortable to receive a lower rating, but instead of responding with hostile defensiveness, perhaps one should acknowledge the constructive well-intentioned criticism
    A lower or higher rating on the absolute value scale doesn’t imply assur vs. muttar; it is simply a lower vs. higher rating. I don’t see how one can make the argument that women who address men in public should get the same absolute rating as a woman who only publicly addresses other women just because she has “different aspirations” or wants to make “professional contributions”.

    — in other words, if there was an alternative scale composed by some MO valuation system that would have a haredi paragon rebetzin lower than say a female O professor or lawyer , the author would have no objection to that, and not react with hostility….it’s just a value scale of another community, not assur or muttar, just higher or lower….

  • Robert Lebovits

    To L. Oberstein: Thank you for the correction. As you say, their husband’s were not in any way instrumental to their works.
    Question: If Reb. Kanievsky is not a model for most women today, how about the Emaos? Are they models for “spiritual and intellectual fulfillment”?

  • DF

    Observation: The corollary to saying Rebetzin Kanevsky is not really a role model for women, is saying Rabbi Kanevsky is not really a role model for men.

  • Shades of Gray

    Related to this conversation, it was reported in YNET that Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of R. Ovadiah Yosef, criticized Mehadrin buses and said regarding feminism that “the haredi woman shuts herself off from the outside society, thinking that feminism will hurt her family,” but added that she believes Jewish Law is in favor of gender equality.”

    My points are as follows:

    (1) To question whether this is an accurate quote of her, and if yes, does it represent her father, or any position in the Haredi world?

    (2) Despite any differences in tzniyus which speak to minhag of a place as well as the philosophy of how much a woman should interact with society, what everyone has in common is greater than what divides.

  • Abe71

    Dovid Kornreich:
    To Abe71:
    Many women, who are professionals or otherwise are in the work force show how an Orthodox woman “can have a profound religious impact upon the greater Jewish world without compromising one iota on the values and attitudes of tznius…

    I am genuinely intrigued. Can you point to any specific women in the work force who indeed show this, and can you describe how they are making a profound religious impact on the greater Jewish world?

    I am acqainted with many women who lead lives such as those described in general terms by Dr. E. above. Commentators above have mentioned Tzipi Hotovely, who, as a rising star in the Knesset is in the public sphere. The evry fact that she is there, contributing, to the Jewish nation as a frum woman means she is having a religious impact on the Jewish World. Since we are speaking about women who are BH alive I will not sit and list off names of people whose private lives are not in the public sphere (or at least on the internet in public discussions scuh as this-it goes without saying that each of these modest women would be embarrased to have their name listed here to be read by a readership who in many cases will recognize their names; however, among my own relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances, an educator who during her career has been responsible for educating many Jewish children, a successful law partner whose Tzedaka, chessed and involvement in Mosdos is impressive, a pediatrican who volunteers her time working with chronically ill children, another lawyer who started an organization to help chronically ill people and who spends tremendous amounts of time in that. There are many and most are also mothers. I suppose if you are really intrigued maybe the answer is that you and I simply have different understandings about what constitutes a “profound impact” on the Jewish World, or perhaps what the “Jewish World” is. I assure you we do not have a different conception of tznius, and the women I am talking about will fit right in to a typical frum community -I will not tell you that any of them is more Tzanua then the Rebbetzin Z”L – how could I ever say that; but they are mainstream frum women who observe kisui rosh and dress in accordance with normative halacha in their respective various frum communities. And of course, I am not contending that the Rebbetzin ZL did not have a profound impact -of course she did. But not to the exclusion of others, which is what your words imply. If that is not what you meant then so be it. However the fact that you say you are intrigued by my statement does seem to me to indicate that you and I are on completely different pages on this point.

  • Dr. E

    The direction that this thread has taken, based on the various comments, points to an evolution of women’s roles within the Orthodox community which has probably been more accelerated over the past century. That constituency of Orthodox women ranges from those in the Feminist camp all the way to the Rebbitzen, a”h. While the position of those in the Feminist camp is a clear agenda of equality, for those on the continuum in between the two extremes, they are still in flux.

    The problem that underlies the more passionate comments within the thread is the lack of clarity that young and even not-so-young women have been getting from the educational mentors (and Rabbinic leaders) primarily in the Chareidi circles (perhaps more so in “Chareidi Lite” ones). Let’s work chronologically backwards from the economic reality and assumption of a frum family to have two decent incomes coming in to live Jewishly. This presumes that both spouses have had the training to maximize that income potential. The questions of where and when each is supposed to obtain that training has been the source of much debate. And this has been a moving target especially in the past 30 years of the “Kollel Era”.

    The fact is that there has been a lack of clarity for women in the secular college endeavor. For those who find Stern or Touro beyond their ideological comfort zone, where will one get the academic credentialing and training to reach the necessary income targets? We have reached a point where the chinuch institutions (Bais Yaakovs and Yeshivos) believe and tell their students and parents that they have it all figured out with various self-developed academic programs. But empirically, years later, the results are often “nisht a hinn, nisht a heir” (loosely translated as “I’m not being hired because my resume is uncompelling and anyway, I am very different from them, so I’m not sure I wanted a job anyway.”)

    Another factor which has confused this endeavor for contemporary women has been the increasing trend towards Hashkafic separatism of frum people, from the rest of society both socially and in the workplace. This has become increasingly acute for frum women especially. If we are at a point where pictures of modestly dressed women cannot appear in our media and women cannot appear in front of men, how is that to be reconciled with a frum woman working in a corporate office, whether or not she has to make a presentation to a mixed group or not? (Are there two Shulchan Aruchs for what a woman is allowed to do within the community and what she is allowed to do outside of it?) The resolution of this dissonance is hardly compelling either intellectually or practically. [I’m not sure whether the correct answer to a Chareidi membership test question would be a new all-women’s Hatzalah corp or men continuing to treat women in sensitive situations.] The point is that there are iherent contradictions which have been communicated to frum young women during these past 30 years. Out community must start to hold those who communicate the mixed messages (implicitly or explicitly) accountable for the outcomes which have come to pass.

    There are certainly some specific lessons and hanhagos that women can learn from the Rebbitzen z”l. But, we also have to understand the very limited existential context in which she lived her life. Living in Bnei Brak, married to a Torah legend. The time has come for the chareidi community (in America and Israel) to reevaluate the role of most women who must operate successfully in the workplace and in our community in order to sustain the prevalent standard of living that frum life, especially as a function of the Kollel Era. Of course, the challenges of this inherent balance are significant; but they have been attainable. And it is the role models of those who have successfully managed the balance in the past (beyond renown Jewish educators noted by commenters) who should be profiled proudly and unapologetically, perhaps even more often than those exceptional individuals who were never part of that environment.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    Abe71:
    I see that you are primarily describing the “Kiddush Hashem ripple effect” of a frum working woman setting a good example to the public of what a frum woman ought to be: Tzedaka, Chesed, involved in Mosdos, volunteering–all while being a mother and dressing modestly.
    But while all this is absolutely true, and I too know of many such outstanding role-models of the public Jewish woman, I’m afraid you’ve missed my point in the post entirely.

    I was addressing a woman’s religious impact on the public in a much more direct and explicit fashion. Not via a “ripple effect”. Being a spiritual leader, spiritual mentor and spiritual guide is not how I would characterize any of the roles you have mentioned.
    I don’t want to be more explicit for fear of being more offensive.

    To Dr. E.:

    It seems you’ve overlooked the fact I mentioned earlier: about the late Rebbetzin’s early experiences as a single girl working as a secretary in a non-Chareidi environment.

  • Abe 71

    R’ Kornreich, you asked me a question: “I am genuinely intrigued. Can you point to any specific women in the work force who indeed show this, and can you describe how they are making a profound religious impact on the greater Jewish world?” So I answered. If women in the “work force” as you have aptly termed it, are beyond the scope of your piece then so be it, but I think it would have been much better in a forum such as this one, where there is an open and respectful exchange of ideas, for you to be more explicit and not fear being offensive. Since you are obviously not talking about being disrespectful and therefore offensive, you must mean there is an idea or opinion that you have that you are skirting because you are afraid it will offend? While I am pretty sure I know what that idea is, the article you wrote paints and criticizes in much broader strokes. The following lines which you wrote say what they say and after a plain reading of these lines, the comments made are warranted.

    “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.”

    If we agree that those women who have a “kiddush Hashem Ripple effect” do have a profound religious impact upon the greater Jewish world without compromising one iota on the values and attitudes of tznius, and that they (and, I think most off us of both genders who live in the modern World) tend to navigate our path with an inherent tension, then great. If that’s not the point you wanted to make . . . .ok.

  • Reb. Dr. R.

    David Kornreich,your response above indicating that the Rebbetzin is a role model for Jewish women in all circumstances (as you said: “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), is laughable given your example that she worked as a secretary in a mixed environment. Tell me how many surgeons she stood up to, tzinusdikly, of course, in their own OR midway through a complicated procedure. 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. Explain to me how she managed to circumvent disaster when her $6M customer threatened to blackball her products from their account forevermore if she wouldn’t fund their latest scheme. I’d like to understand a bit more about how she “she took extra precautions to avoid being negatively influenced by the less-than-ideal but necessary exposure to that environment” when out of her own free will, she placed herself in situations such as the above, Oh, SORRY, she didn’t do these things…BUT WE OFTEN HAVE TO DO SO TODAY to fund the Torah education of our children in day schools which entail tuition obligations of more than $80K a year for a family of 5 children, in after-tax dollars, of course. Tell me how this great and other great women in our society are keeping themselves from the evil influences of the workforce in positions that enable them to bring in the $200-300K they need to pay their bills when yeshiva tuition alone consumes the lion’s share of earnings. Please tell me…because I for one, can use some pointers after doing the above and more for the past decade to fund my children’s yeshiva and seminary education and have yet to find a role model I can relate to. The kinds of mixed messages inherent in your article are really not that helpful and not at all inspiring for people like me who are paying our society’s bills. Please show me a role model I can relate to. But don’t bother if you can’t find one who can’t go head to head, mano a mano, in any Boardroom in this country, because those of us out there who do this on a daily basis, and feel like we are the ones who are funding this great enterprise, will somehow find them lacking as I am sure you would understand if you ever had a day in my shoes (or Boardroom).

  • Dr. E.

    Looking at how the comments and counter-comments have evolved, it is evident that despite the fact that there might be some inspirational lessons that can be drawn from Rebbitzen Kanievsky’s life, there is a reality which is disconnected to that utopian world (to Reb Dovid: working as a secretary in an office for a very limited time, is not a compelling caveat in this conversation). Perhaps this is most noticeable in America, but certainly salient in light of much of the CC readership. Reb. Dr. R (no relation) draws attention to the facts-on-the-ground for many frum middle-class families who are struggling to make it. This is most notably manifested in families where the wife must work full-time in a skilled, professional position in order to pay the bills so that it does not have to be subsidized by family or community.

    The issue which warrants discussion is the obvious disconnect between the educational staff of our girls schools and those who are the financial administrators of the same institutions (assuming they are not the same person). In many cases, the teachers discourage such professional pursuits, preferring for their graduates to get a quick degree, date, get married, have children, support their husbands in learning by working, working part-time, and somehow bring in a salary that will cover the mortgage, food, gas, clothing, and tuition with whatever is left. Yet, the financial people certainly prefer those (professional, dual-income) families who struggle to pay tuition.

    Unfortunately, in 2011 the notion of financial independence in the frum community has become only a self-imposed value, and not a concept that is part of the current Bais Yaakov (and Yeshiva) curriculum. It’s time for a fundamental shift in posture by the educators in the guidance and direction that they are presenting to our young women. When the definitions of female role models are limited to Artscroll, this really does a disservice. The working women of the frum community should neither be implicitly ridiculed by educators nor taken for granted by administrators and tuition committees. It’s time for educators to start taking greater accountability for the impact that the prevalent mixed messages and misdirected rhetoric ultimately has had on our communities.

  • ShlomoH

    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.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    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.

  • Guest

    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?

  • Reb. Dr. R.

    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.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    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”.