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Bringing Up Rachel

How Rabbi Akiva’s wife emerged as a role model to Orthodox women struggling to balance families and careers

Zev Eleff and Leslie Ginsparg Klein
July 30, 2021
Carlo Cadenas
Carlo Cadenas

In July 2020, Rabbi Menachem Karmel of Yeshiva Gedola Montreal replied to a query posed by a “Group of Girls.” The Dear Abby-style exchange appeared in a children’s magazine popular with the right-wing Orthodox community, which, loosely speaking, brings together everyone from the more stringently observant modern Orthodox to self-described Yeshivish Jews. The letter writers asked Karmel why pictures of girls did not appear in the pages of the periodical. “We feel misrepresented when we see pictures of boys our age, but not girls,” they wrote.

Karmel explained that the magazine’s rabbinical board had decided against publishing pictures of girls. In an answer that, knowingly or not, drew from the Victorian Era’s “Cult of Domesticity,” he stated that the reason girls were not pictured was because young female readers needed to understand that a “woman’s primary role is making sure that her Yiddishe home is a strong fortress of kedushah (holiness) for her family to grow in.” His response suggested a reality where right-wing Orthodox women do not work outside of the home, describing these women as “household CEOs” and “princesses of the home.”

The exchange highlighted an ideological contradiction that sits at the heart of right-wing Orthodox women’s religious experiences. Read it at face value, and you might imagine that Karmel’s answer reflects a community whose traditional values are irreconcilable with modern sensibilities. But the picture is much more complex, with many Orthodox women fully immersed in the work force and some serving as CEOs of companies as well as their homes. At the same time, these women cherish their roles as wives and mothers, and embrace another obligation that their secular or less stringently Orthodox sisters rarely share: shouldering work and family responsibilities, including as primary breadwinners, so that their husbands can engage in full-time Torah study. To understand this complex model, one that enables so many Orthodox women to engage robustly with modern roles as doctors, lawyers, and executives while remaining true to their traditional way of life, we need to look to one of Judaism’s most unheralded heroes: the great and mysterious Rachel.

First mentioned in the Talmud’s Tractate Ketubot (62b), Rachel was the wife of the legendary Rabbi Akiva. She was the daughter of one Kalba Savua, a wealthy Jerusalemite who, at one point, hired a hardworking and uneducated shepherd named Akiva to tend to his flocks of sheep. To the affluent man’s chagrin, his daughter Rachel recognized Akiva’s potential and proposed to him on condition that he learn Torah. Akiva assented. Kalba Savua, unhappy with the match, disowned his daughter and son-in-law.

Rachel gave up material comfort and lived in poverty while Akiva learned abroad for 12 years. Upon his triumphant return home, Rabbi Akiva, escorted by 12,000 students, overheard his wife report to a menacing neighbor that she would prefer her husband study uninterrupted for another dozen years. Rabbi Akiva immediately turned around and returned to the study hall.

Rabbi Akiva came back 12 years later, 24 in all. By then, he was a larger-than-life public figure. This time, Rachel was better apprised of her husband’s travel plans. She ignored her neighbors’ suggestions to borrow some finer clothes and rushed to greet her husband. An entourage of disciples—now doubled to 24,000—pushed her away, seemingly disgusted that someone in rags would approach their exalted teacher.

“Leave her!” thundered Rabbi Akiva. “Mine and yours,” continued the master to his misguided students, referring to their collective Torah accomplishments, “is hers!”

Since at least the mid-1960s, when she was resurrected by Vichna Kaplan, the founder of the prestigious Orthodox Bais Yaakov High School for girls in New York, Rachel has become a model for educators seeking to provide their young charges with an inspiring model of being in the world. Jewish women, Rebbetzin Kaplan told her pupils, should encourage their future husbands to remain steadfastly committed to Torah study, and not burden them with “additional responsibilities so that the wife can obtain those extras which she can really live without.” Kaplan understood the tensions with modern American life. She relayed that “before marriage some of our students aspire to wed a ‘Rebbe Akiva’ but afterwards they want their husbands to be a ‘Kalba Sovuah.’” Kaplan stressed to her students that Torah was a partnership: Men learned. Women, like Akiva’s Rachel, empowered that learning through self-sacrifice. Both were essential, neither possible without the other, to the maintenance of an Orthodox family.

For a while, however, the enthusiasm for Rachel remained limited largely to Kaplan and her students. Before the 1970s, Rachel rarely appeared in popular literature produced by the yeshiva world. Many women in tradition-bound faiths had yet to consider personal and professional options which would make a Rachel-like lesson potent and financially viable.

And then came second-wave feminism.

The growing movement to encourage women to seek satisfying careers outside traditional family roles did not leave the Orthodox community untouched. Spokesmen of the Orthodox right spoke and wrote about the need to retain the “traditional” Jewish home and the “traditional” gender-distinct Torah curricula. Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, for example, the editor of The Jewish Observer, a leading Orthodox magazine, urged his female readers to keep to the status quo, to leave the “Bastille” alone, not to seek out new professional and intellectual pursuits.

But standing athwart history and yelling “halt” is a tricky proposition, and the Orthodox community needed a way to wrestle with new ideas while keeping the old ones safe and sound. Rachel emerged as a perfect platform: A daughter of an affluent family, her marriage to Akiva signaled a willingness to sacrifice for her husband’s sake. She is nameless in the original text, known first as a daughter and then as a wife. Her virtue, the only distinguishable characteristic the Talmud offers her, is self-sacrifice.

And with that began a thrust of promoting Rachel as a model for Orthodox Jewish womanhood. In March 1981, Rabbi Elya Svei of the Philadelphia Yeshiva told a large audience at an Agudath Israel convention that the Akiva-Rachel dual dynamic was key to “raising a Torah family.” Dr. Yosef Rosenshein, a psychologist, proposed that Rachel was a “striking example” of how Orthodox couples might prevent divorce: “Clearly,” Rosenshein wrote, “she viewed this period crucial to make theirs more than just another successful marriage, because she obviously did not see her marriage as a union entered for the purpose of providing her with life’s earthly pleasures. To her, marriage was a means for her and her husband to realize lofty, transcendent goals unattainable to either of them alone.”

Women also embraced Rachel’s image. Some celebrated their role as a modern-day Rachel, taking pride in their contribution to their family and their husband’s learning. For instance, in 1985, a woman in Williamsville, New York, took issue with a writer who penned an article on “Torah Study and its Support.” This woman had hoped to read about her female co-religionists who busied themselves with housework, child care, and work outside the home to enable their husbands to hone their Talmud acumen. This recognition—“shall we say Akiva-Rochel partnership”—was “long overdue.”

The emphasis on the Orthodox woman’s responsibility to sacrifice her material comfort for her learning-focused husband increased with the flowering of kollels (Torah centers) sometimes attached to yeshivas, meant for men to learn Talmud full time after marriage while their wives shoulder the dual burden of serving as the primary earner and taking care of the home and family. In the early 1980s, for example, a female writer, Nechama Bakst, offered this perspective in an Agudath Israel publication. She wrote that in Bais Yaakov schools, “girls are systematically exposed to a curriculum that indoctrinates them with the concept that there is no woman more commendable than one who goes to work so that her husband may be free to learn Torah. In fact, many hundreds of students emerge from Bais Yaakov each year, eager to embrace this concept of Kollel, American style.”

Bakst expressed the conflict she and other women felt between working and leaving children behind. Still, her satisfaction in supporting her husband’s learning and her belief that it positively impacted her children helped overcome these painful concerns. Another “kollel wife” in Monsey, New York, described her sisterhood as “latter-day Rachels,” earners, mothers, and “non-complainers.” The experience, these women believed, made for better spouses. A 19-year-old woman told the late sociologist William Helmreich about her family’s kollel experience, stating that the “first year or two sets the pattern for the rest of your life. Even if my husband goes to work later he’ll never change. He’ll be a person who has learning in his blood, not just for an education.”

The kollel life has become a rite of passage for young married couples among the Orthodox right, but American life, and Orthodox Jewish life with it, has changed, becoming more expensive. Many women pursue more lucrative and demanding careers to keep up with the rising costs of Orthodox life: tuition, fashion and the other trappings of the yeshiva world’s own brand of American consumer culture. They are Rachels without the expectations of a penurious home, living the kollel life without having to be, as Rebbetzin Kaplan described it, “satisfied with the least.”

And so, everywhere you look in the Orthodox world these last three decades, the Rachel model is there: in an Orthodox children’s magazine, telling its readers that “few women in history have suffered more and been responsible for so much greatness as Rachel”; in a 1990 book for young adults, released by Feldheim and titled And Rachel Was His Wife, narrating the ancient heroine’s life; in hagiographical stories like the one about Rebbetzin Sheina Chaya Elyashiv, who fell and hurt her head but lay bleeding silently on the floor for hours rather than wake up her husband, the eminent Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and disturb his Torah learning for the following day.

Rachel is also present in traditionally all-male spaces. On the campus of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Yeshiva, there exists an exquisite plaque in memory of Rebbetzin Golda Feiga Ruderman, the wife of the founding yeshiva head. The glasswork memorial intends to remind the students in the Baltimore school that their studies and those of their forebears are a credit to Rebbetzin Ruderman’s unflagging support of her husband’s pioneering Torah efforts.

The focus on Rachel grows particularly strong every seven years or so, when Jews studying Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud a day, complete the cycle of reading the entire tome. Since 1990, speakers at the Agudath Israel’s Daf Yomi celebration make sure to credit the wives who “single-parent” their homes while their husbands escape early in the morning or late at night to attend a lecture on the designated page of Talmud. Many women attend the Siyum HaShas as full-fledged celebrants, ennobled because of the “sacrifices they had made to enable their husbands to study.” To repay the debt, an entrepreneurial jeweler advertised in 1997 that these Talmud learners could purchase a 14-karat gold necklace and charm, adorned with Rabbi Akiva’s catchphrase: “My Torah and your Torah are hers.” In fact, the Talmud (Shabbat 59a) records that Rabbi Akiva did just that for Rachel when he could afford it.

The jewelry was probably far too materialistic for Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan’s tastes. It certainly obscured her efforts to combat American consumerism within her Bais Yaakov school. The item bollixed Rachel the heiress with Rachel the wife. It reflected the vision of Orthodox female sacrifice, without eschewing materialism.

That is how Rachel persists, stronger than ever. At the January 2020 Siyum, no women sat on the dais, nor did they climb to the podium to address the 100,000 people seated in chilly New Jersey. However, they did attend in large numbers. Agudath Israel commissioned a glossy magazine for the women who descended on MetLife Stadium to cheer on their husbands and sons. While no pictures of women appeared, the publication, produced by women for women, reminded them that “by serving as that example in our households, by looking to grow a bit more each day, we as women, have done our ‘daf.’”

Agudath Israel also produced a video montage in women’s honor, where a host of Rabbi Akiva-like individuals paid tribute to their wives. “There is no way I could [learn Daf Yomi] without her,” praised one recorded interviewee. “She’s stuck with four kids in the morning. She is dealing with them all by herself. So all the credit,” alluding to Rabbi Akiva’s Rachel declaration, “goes to her.”

Therein lies the partnership, a simultaneously religious and modern commitment to self-sacrifice for everyone’s sake.

Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College and the incoming president of Gratz College. Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is a writer, speaker, and educator of Jewish history.