Insights into how we can happily follow our husband without losing ourselves
My friend was distraught.
It was time to choose a school for her oldest daughter — no easy feat in a city with 40-odd schools, mostly too full to grant you an interview — and she and her husband didn’t agree on the choice. She had some very serious reservations about the school he wanted to apply to.
“I was listening to Rebbetzin Goldberg,*” she confided, “and she said that an ishah kesheirah doesn’t just go along with what her husband wants — she actively supports it.”
Was she wrong to voice her concerns?
The international bestseller The Surrendered Wife, principles of which have been adopted and adapted by numerous frum teachers, encourages women to say, “Whatever you think,” to all their husbands’ suggestions, no matter how harebrained.
Is the role of a Jewish wife to be a yes-man (woman?), agreeing to anything her husband proposes? (A casual reading of carefully cherry-picked maamarei Chazal could definitely leave someone with that impression.) Or is she meant to be an equal partner in running the home and rearing the children?
“This is a false dichotomy,” argues Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker, a veteran seminary teacher who also runs an interactive mussar vaad via teleconference focused on self-development. If you look at the Torah sources, she says, it’s true that the husband is the head of the household. But the wife’s role is not minimal. She also has an important spiritual role, far greater than just keeping house and acquiescing to whatever her husband suggests.
“In Gan Eden, there was no cooking or laundry,” notes Mrs. Schoonmaker. “There’s something more that the wife brings to the table. The Maharal says Chavah was created from a hidden organ, and is therefore the master of the hidden reality. She can read between the lines.”
When a child complains of a stomachache, the stereotypical male response might be a visit to the GI; it’s the woman’s binah yeseirah that can sniff out the child’s anxiety over a social issue in school.
None of the animals could be a partner to Adam — he needed someone with thought and speech. Though Hashem could have matched Adam with a gazelle or water buffalo, He knew that Adam needed a helpmate who could impart valuable insight into his decisions — but in a decidedly feminine way.
At the same time, she says, a woman is meant to be a mekabel of her husband’s shefa, not simply a mirror image. In the Torah, we also see more than one way of being a supportive wife. We have the example of Sarah, who told Avraham what she felt was right for Yitzchak’s chinuch, and was backed by Hashem, but we also have Rivkah Imeinu and Devorah Haneviah, who guided events behind the scenes without direct intervention in their husbands’ decisions.
Can we empower our girls with a healthy sense of self, teaching them when to defer graciously, and when to bring their unique strengths to bear in the relationship?
Timeless Teachings, Current Challenges
In his discussion of the changing role of Jewish women through time, historian Rabbi Berel Wein notes that while Torah is constant, communal standards change. So while mistreating one’s wife has always been forbidden, it’s the accepted norms of society that determine what constitutes mistreatment and what’s a healthy, normal interaction.
The marriage paradigm that worked well in pre-expulsion Spain won’t serve couples in 21st-century Flatbush, and understanding shifting attitudes toward marriage can help shed light on why there’s so much confusion about the role of a Jewish wife.
“When I got married decades ago, we were taught that our husbands know everything,” says Esther, a veteran kallah teacher. “What an awful pressure to put on a guy!”
While the young kallah likely was much more ignorant than her brand-new husband, and thus more able to accept his decisions with wide-eyed admiration, today’s girls are more independent and better-educated than they once were, and often have more experience out in the world than their husbands do.
As a counterbalance, many mechanchos administer copious doses of “ishah kesheirah” speeches to encourage girls to defer to their husbands on all manner of decisions, from the mundane (he wants to start every meal with a soup) to the momentous (the neighborhood you live in).
While most girls can integrate these messages in a healthy way, problems can arise at either extreme — those who are too submissive and those who are too assertive.
“When I talk about this topic, I always preface it by saying that I’m talking to both ends of the spectrum,” says Mrs. Schoonmaker. “There are women to whom everything, down to how to fold the napkins, is worth starting an argument over. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those without self-esteem, or who grew up with very dominant parents, who aren’t comfortable asserting themselves, and will misinterpret teachings about ‘ishah kesheirah’ even at the expense of their mental health.”
To figure out where you fall on this range, she suggests asking yourself, “What’s my default mode?” Are you eager to say yes and accommodate everyone, or is your initial impulse to resist being pushed around? Reflecting on this question can offer some insight into your personality. There’s a wide range of perfectly healthy responses, but it’s helpful to be aware if you have a strong tendency toward either extreme.
Overemphasizing deference to one’s husband is most dangerous for people who have codependency issues. “When someone has an unhealthy dependence, it becomes easy for them to explain away abusive behavior,” says Mrs. Schoonmaker.
In an extreme example, Leah’s* husband used to unwind for hours on end with the sports pages, going to bed in the wee hours of the morning. Not only did he expect her to get all seven kids out on her own each day, he also demanded that she keep them quiet so he could sleep till mid-morning.
Leah thought she was being an ishah kesheirah by not protesting, and it wasn’t until a concerned mentor intervened that she learned she was enabling unreasonable behavior.
Knowing When to Speak Up
Halachah is necessarily the starting point of every discussion of the roles of husband and wife. The Rambam codifies the duties of a wife in Mishneh Torah: “She should honor him exceedingly…She should perform all her actions according to his word, and he should be in her eyes like a minister or king. She goes according to the desires of his heart and distances herself from what he dislikes.”
This is the traditional model followed by Adina,* whose husband disapproves of certain Jewish media that she grew up with. After seeking eitzah from daas Torah, she made the conscious decision to defer to his preference.
Aside from the respect she’d learned to accord her husband as the leader of the family, she acknowledged that his years of Torah learning better qualified him to determine the family’s values than did her advanced secular education. Today she feels that the backing she gave her husband by giving up something valuable in deference to his wishes is a strong factor in the mutual respect they share.
Shaina, married nearly 40 years, says she also learned to defer to her husband in anything that wasn’t dangerous, assur, or truly painful to her. She was taught only to compliment and build, and not to offer unsolicited opinions about anything that wasn’t pivotal.
“Sharing your opinion with him is a privilege, a zechus, and an obligation, but only for a woman who doesn’t nag,” she says.
What she learned by following this advice for decades, she says, is that life is so much more fun when you follow your husband’s lead.
“It brings so much simchah into the home!” she enthuses.
She has only seen brachah from this path, she adds; she’s never regretted putting her husband’s preferences first, so she gives over this message to her daughters with confidence.
Everyone agrees, though, that there are times that a woman needs to assert what she knows to be right. Intimate knowledge of yourself and your values is the key to avoid being obliterated under the banner of being the perfect wife.
Mrs. Schoonmaker breaks decisions down into categories of importance. The easiest times to accommodate your husband are when your wishes are not very different, or when the question is fairly inconsequential — think which restaurant to go to or which recliner to buy.
Chani* learned a light-hearted lesson in this early on. Her mother had always taught her that a kallah actually means a daughter-in-law in Hebrew — her role as a bride was to integrate into her husband’s family culture, so that she’d feel like she truly belonged to them. “She should feel more like her husband’s relative than her father’s,” was how her mother put it.
A few months after the wedding, her husband gently asked if she would mind dressing a little more Shabbosdig on Friday nights. Chani was perplexed. She was always made up, wearing her sheva brachos outfits and sheitels — what more did he want? They quickly realized that his mother typically wore an elegant robe and snood to the seudah, so in his family culture, that was kavod Shabbos, and that’s what she now emulates.
Other times, says Mrs. Schoonmaker, there will be more of an adjustment period, with initial discomfort, but no residual pain or anger down the line. In these cases, if a wife can give in graciously, she’s adding emotional deposits to the relationship’s bank account.
However, as the decision becomes more serious — she sees major drawbacks to the husband’s position — then it’s important to reach some kind of resolution that works for both.
“If you’re always insisting on having your way in the inconsequential areas, you won’t have the emotional equity to assert yourself when needed for more serious decisions,” she explains, which is why it takes a lot of introspection to decide which decisions are worth being mevater on and which entail working toward a joint solution.
“The gracious concession is for when there’s no real cost to doing it his way,” she says. But when a decision has critical implications for any member of the family, the wife needs to bring her binah to the table. “This is the time for win-win conflict resolution,” she says.
Solutions can be sequential — we’ll go to your parents first days and mine second, for example; or incorporative — if we send to school X, can we also hire private tutors? Or send to school Y, but work out something with the transportation?
The key is that decision making needs to be collaborative. The wife should feel heard, and that her husband understands and validates her concerns, and has a plan for addressing them.
“It’s concerning to me if a woman feels she has no say in decision-making,” says Mrs. Schoonmaker. “He may not be actually abusive, but consistently feeling unheard is a pink flag, at least, if not a red one.”
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Rabbi Yisrael Kleinman, LCSW, author of the shalom bayis book You and Me Equals We, says that a commitment to accommodating your husband at all costs can often backfire.
“Ask any chassan or kallah: Will you fight with your spouse? Of course, they’re sure they never will,” he says. When you’re engaged, you’re certain that your intended is a reasonable person who will behave in reasonable ways, so when would there ever be cause for fighting? “It’s unfathomable that their future spouse will act in a way that’s outside of the normal range of behavior.”
It’s shocking, then, when your spouse does something that, in your mind, only strange or insensitive people would think of doing. And the criteria for “disturbingly insensitive” depend very much on the family culture you’re coming from, says Rabbi Kleinman.
For example, in your family of origin, not spending most Shabbosim of shanah rishonah with the kallah’s parents may be unheard of. So it’s hard for you to understand how this man whom you thought was reasonable and intelligent wouldn’t want to. “Which normal person wouldn’t want to hang around my family?” you wonder.
But you were taught that the cure for all disagreements was vatranus — so you’re a saint, and agree to stay home and make Shabbos once every four weeks or so. Meanwhile, he goes to your parents three weeks in a row — even though no normal person would do that.
“They don’t appreciate each other’s sacrifices, each one is mad at the other, this is where things go off the rails,” says Rabbi Kleinman. “The trouble is, if I’m mevater to you on something that to me is beyond the pale, but to you is within bounds, I’m going to feel like I’ve given you the gift of the century. ‘Who else would allow their husband to do that?!’” Everyone has done what they’ve been taught — they’ve been mevater and ignored their own needs — but somehow you both feel resentful, misunderstood, and taken advantage of.
What separates excessive vatranus from healthy compromise, says Rabbi Kleinman, is not the frequency or extent of the accommodation, but the associated expectations. Giving in graciously as a gift to one’s spouse, or as a no-strings-attached experiment to see if it will improve the relationship, is fine. Giving in as a way of bargaining for reciprocal behavior, in anticipation of a particular reaction, becomes dangerous.
Mrs. Schoonmaker agrees that touting vatranus as the key to solving every disagreement is simplistic. Paraphrasing noted chinuch authority Rav Yechiel Yaakovson, she says, “Never say yes because you can’t say no. If you don’t know how to say no, your yeses are meaningless. Vitur is a choice. I’m capable of asserting myself but choose not to.”
The spouse who is the paragon of good middos, always swallowing her discomfort and never insisting on reaching a compromise, may be building up a storehouse of resentment. Occasionally, says Rabbi Kleinman, this can be a catalyst for couples divorcing as they reach the empty nest stage. They’ve held it in for so long, but the pressure was building until it finally erupts.
“The other spouse is flabbergasted, because he thought they had an amazing marriage,” he says.
This pattern regularly plays out on a smaller scale. The party who is always being mevater and always twisting herself into a pretzel to accommodate her husband can’t keep it up forever, and will periodically lash out in anger. The husband, meanwhile, can’t figure out what got into his wife — she’s normally so sweet and gentle, why does she blow up every so often? Neither of them realizes that it’s the pent-up resentment of always giving in that’s fueling the recurring explosions.
Excessive vatranus is like a credit card, says Rabbi Kleinman. “You want pizza, but can’t afford it. Either you can live with the discomfort of not having your pizza, or you can swipe. You’ll magically have pizza, but you’ll have to pay off the accrued debt and interest at some point.”
The magical vatranus credit card has a similar effect. A spouse can avoid an uncomfortable conversation by giving in, but each incidence of staying silent will lead to mounting frustration, which will make itself felt sooner or later.
On a more optimistic note, talking through issues is the best way to reach solutions, both practical and emotional. The easy cases are the logistical ones; having frank conversations about the budget might lead to creative solutions. But on a deeper level, too, talking through conflicts can lead to a much greater degree of intimacy than avoiding them.
“Often, the things that are important to me create a window into who I am at a deep level. When we unpack it, we learn that, for example, going to her parents brings back the atmosphere of connection, which is one of the foundational memories of her childhood.
“Conflict is the royal road to the depths of my soul; what gets me worked up is what touches me very deeply. If we talk about it, we can learn.”
A Sense of Self
According to Rabbi Kleinman, there are two things that every chassan and kallah need to know. The first, he says, is that shalom bayis doesn’t mean being in agreement about every issue. There might be a topic on which they really don’t understand each other’s viewpoint; they may never come to see eye to eye. Even so, they can work out a livable compromise.
Without this understanding, he says, a woman may constantly give in and allow herself to become a doormat in her efforts to keep the peace at all costs. If she understands that peace can reign even without her needing to remake herself and her beliefs in her husband’s image, she’ll be able to retain her identity even when faced with disagreement.
Suppose the husband likes to hang around shul after davening to chap a schmooze with his friends; the wife can’t understand why he doesn’t come home promptly to begin the seudah. No amount of argument will convince the other of the rectitude of their spouse’s position. But they can still come up with a solution, perhaps by taking turns getting their way. Neither side needs to talk themselves into believing the other’s position is superior; they just have to make it work.
Secondly, both spouses — but especially the homemaker who may have fewer footholds in the outside world — need to maintain a vibrant independent life. If she’s tied up in her marriage to the extent that she can’t deal with the fact that her husband is unhappy, she’ll go to drastic lengths to placate him, even at the expense of her mental health.
“Your spouse’s emotional displeasure is not a gun to your head — you have to be able to tolerate it,” says Rabbi Kleinman.
Without the ability to process and tolerate another’s displeasure, the wife will twist herself into a pretzel to take away the discomfort, even at the expense of sacrificing her own needs and self.
Mrs. Gila Levitt, a veteran marriage educator in Yerushalayim and founder of the Heart of Marriage.org teleconferences on kedushas habayis, says a woman needs to be in tune with her emotional needs, to know which decisions she can give in on and which require her to stand her ground.
Suppose a husband thinks wall art and flower arrangements are pointless clutter; for some women, it’s no big deal, and it might make sense to accommodate his taste. For others, whose nature may be more artistic, the aesthetics of the home may be of paramount importance, and it might be worth having a serious discussion about the topic. There’s no easy division between “important” and “unimportant,” she says; it takes careful, individualized reflection for a wife to determine, and be able to differentiate between, her wants and needs.
There’s no imperative — nor is it desirable, from a relationship standpoint — to always agree, says Gila. However, as in all relationships, and especially in marriage, it’s critical that disagreement take place in a respectful way, namely one that honors the husband’s ratzon — his deepest drives and needs, which include recognition of his role as the head of the family.
“The pasuk tells us ‘chochmas nashim bansah beisah,’ and the way a woman’s wisdom builds is by being nashi, feminine,” she says. It’s not a skill that comes naturally to most women today, but something that needs study and practice.
In fact, Chazal’s prescription for the ishah kesheirah refers to her approach rather than the content of her words, explains Gila. She needs to address him in a way that acknowledges his essential nature.
Especially today, when women frequently have professional education comparable to or surpassing their husbands’, work outside the home, and are highly accomplished in a variety of fields, it can be hard to remember to relate to your husband in a feminine way. High-powered women may be used to giving orders, asserting themselves, and projecting invulnerability, but when interacting with your husband, these qualities are less endearing. Fortunately, the solution doesn’t involve disavowing your many accomplishments. Instead, a woman should act in a way that honors the typical male need for respect and independence.
The way to do that is in the tone and approach to conversations. When trying to resolve a conflict about disciplinary styles, for example, Gila recommends that women couch the discussion in terms of “I feel that… I am concerned because…” as opposed to using a more hard-nosed tone, such as “Rabbi X said… I did research and read that… ”
A woman’s voice is heard and honored when she uses it in the feminine language of feeling, rather than in a more male style of facts and appeal to authority. When a man is approached in this way, he’s more likely to hear his wife out and consider her viewpoint.
Of course, hearing her out doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll accept her position, and this is where emunah comes in, says Gila. After she’s done her part to discuss the issue in the most effective manner, it’s time to stand back and allow him to move forward, trusting that she’s done her part and the rest is up to Hashem. (Obviously, this is only in context of normal, healthy relationships, not abuse or true dysfunction.)
“I have a friend whose motto is to ‘make yourself small,’ but I disagree,” she says. “It’s not about being small or hiding who you are — it’s about being soft. One of my key teachers, Rabbanit Rut Shemesh, used to say, ‘You can be a CEO! You can be the biggest rebbetzin, expert, or professional. But when you are home with your husband, turn down the volume a little. My motto is ‘SSS: Say it soft and sweet.’ ”
The Role of a Jewish Wife
Rav Reuven Leuchter shares the Torah perspective on the ideal dynamic between husband and wife.
When we talk about the Torah’s view of man and woman, the prototype of a marriage is always the relationship between the Borei Olam, the ultimate chassan, and Klal Yisrael, His kallah.
This relationship isn’t a one-sided, cold, immovable wall, in which He says and we simply perform. No, Klal Yisrael also has a say in how mitzvos are performed. There are considerations that differ based on the situation; for example, cases of duress or extreme loss are all real and relevant in halachah. We even learn from the Gemara that a beis din that mistakenly sanctifies a new month can override the actual reality!
The god who decrees, without considering the needs and state of his people, is a fire-and-brimstone Christian one, whose mercy is granted or withheld at his whim only, independent of any actions the people might perform. The G-d of Israel, in contrast, maintains a relationship with His people that always involves give and take. He desires our input.
We can extrapolate from this paradigm to the terrestrial marriage of a man and woman. People like to quote the midrash that teaches that “ishah kesheirah osah retzon baalah” in support of a wife obeying her husband, but in fact, the word “osah” has another connotation in Lashon Kodesh: It frequently implies forming or molding, rather than performing. Properly understood, an ishah kesheirah, a kosher woman, will help her husband formulate his will.
As Rashi comments when the concept of a wife is first introduced, she is to be an “eizer k’negdo.” If a man merits it, his wife is a helpmate; if he does not merit it, she opposes and fights with him. But whether or not he is zocheh, she still has the dual role — she’s still both an eizer and a k’negdo. She still supports him, and opposes him where necessary, to keep him on the straight path, to make him broader, to help him articulate his ideals.
When Rav Akiva Eiger’s first wife died, the gadol hador quickly received shidduch offers. In a letter responding to one such proposal, he asked in pain, “Do you know what my wife meant to me?” He described sitting up with her into the middle of the night discussing matters of yiras Shamayim.
Surely, the gadol hador and busy rav of Posen had no shortage of things to do and talmidim eager to hear his lectures. If he sat into the wee hours of the morning discussing yiras Shamayim with his wife, he valued her input into his spiritual affairs.
The Gemara does tell us that milei d’Shmaya (spiritual matters) are more appropriately the husband’s domain, while milei d’alma (mundane affairs) are the jurisdiction of the wife. Still, the husband may not unilaterally override his wife in the name of milei d’Shmaya. If the wife feels that she can’t speak up, or must consistently swallow her opinion, that’s a perversion of the concept of ishah kesheirah. Part of her responsibility is to sometimes oppose him, just as Sarah spoke up to Avraham about Hagar, or Rivkah helped Yaakov acquire Yitzchak’s brachos.
Of course, there will be times she’ll defer to her husband and go along with something she doesn’t agree with, but that needs to be true of the husband as well. It can’t be only one party always giving in; that’s not healthy, nor does it mirror the Borei Olam’s relationship with us, in which He’s responsive to us.
The Borei Olam conducts His relationship according to where we are. If someone from the time of Bayis Rishon were to arrive in a time machine, he would barely recognize us as Yidden. No miracles, no Aron Hakodesh, no prophecy — what could the Ribbono shel Olam possibly want with such a broken and distanced generation?
In fact, Hashem’s plan for us includes Mashiach and the return of ruach hakodesh and all that goes along with it, but He paces Himself according to our reality. He walks alongside us and meets us where we are now. And this is the model for a Jewish marriage: a union between a mashpia and a mekabel, who aspire not to blind obedience, but to a relationship.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 770)
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