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Sarah, the Invisible Hero

Because the narrative in the Torah focuses mostly on Avraham, it is easy to overlook that the sacrifices Sarah makes are more exceptional.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

What is the value of a wife’s contribution to her husband’s career? This issue stood at the center of Wendt v. Wendt, a divorce that ignited a national debate on the role of “corporate wives,” women who devoted themselves to their husbands’ careers.

Lorna and Gary Wendt met in high school and both attended the University of Wisconsin. They were engaged in college, and married once Lorna graduated. In 1995, after thirty years of marriage, Gary asked for a divorce. In court, the arguments focused on how to value Lorna Wendt’s contribution to her husband’s career.  The Wall Street Journal summarized the arguments as “Mrs. Wendt, 54 years old, testified that she contributed to a 50-50 partnership: giving her husband advice on job applicants, hostessing lavish parties and making small talk with foreign dignitaries … Mr. Wendt, 55, who has had a stellar 21-year career at GE, insisted the family’s fortune came from his hard work, not his wife’s housekeeping.” In the end, the judge accepted many of Lorna Wendt’s arguments; the “invisible work” that she did was a personal investment in her husband’s career that deserved to be recognized.

Invisible work is very much a part of rabbinic households. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote “The Rabbi’s Wife,” a history of American rebbetzins. In it, she follows the role of the rebbetzin through the past century and a half. One model, common in the 1920s, is what Rubin Schwartz calls “the power behind the throne.” Rebekah Kohut, the wife of Rabbi Alexander Kohut and a brilliant and accomplished woman in her own right, advised rabbi’s wives to “hide their own ability behind the personality of their husband” and to recognize that the rabbi’s wife, “though unheard and unsung, will have played a tremendous part in this immortality if she will be alive to the mission of her husband.” Another model, which gained popularity in the ’40s and ’50s, is “the two for the price of one” rebbetzin. Very often rabbinic wives specifically married rabbis because they wanted a leadership role in Jewish communal work.  Many of these rebbetzins were also scholars and teachers, such as Tamar de Sola Pool. The daughter of a remarkable Talmid Chacham, Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, she wrote and published extensively. It was a different time, and these rebbetzins no longer felt the need to always turn the spotlight back on their husbands. Their invisible work is a bit more visible, and these rabbis and rebbetzins comprise what has been called a “two-person single career.” But in the 1960s, discontent with the rebbetzin’s role began to arise. Many women began to resent  having their own identities submerged under their husband’s choice of career. Rubin Schwartz cites examples of rabbis’ wives insisting that they not be called rebbetzins, and not be given any role in the synagogue. At the end of her book, she notes that the rebbetzin no longer exists in the Conservative and Reform movements; although in Orthodox Judaism, particularly in Chabad, the wives of rabbis often play a significant role in the community.

Invisible work is very much a part of rabbinic households.

The question of how to assess the rebbetzin’s role is already discussed in the Talmud under the topic of “eishet chaver k’chaver”: the wife of a scholar has the same status as a scholar. The Talmud relates that Rav Nachman stood to honor the wife of Rav Huna. The Sdei Chemed, an encyclopedic work written by Haim Hezekiah Medini, cites a debate related to this passage: must one stand for the scholar’s wife if the scholar has died and she is a widow? Can she waive the honor due to her? As usual, opinions vary, and there are rabbis who take either side of these questions. In reading their arguments, a clear delineation appears; it depends on how one perceives the scholar’s wife, and the invisible, intangible work that she does. One possibility is that we stand for the wife as the scholar’s representative, and that is an indirect way of showing honor for the scholar.

If this analysis is true, then one need not stand for the widow of a scholar, for the scholar is no longer living. But there is another point of view: the wife of a scholar has the same status as a scholar because she is his life partner, and her husband’s achievements belong to her as well. I find this second view to be compelling; in the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva tells his students how important his own wife was to his Torah learning, and exclaims that “my Torah knowledge and yours belong to her.” A scholar’s wife is his coach and creative influence, his companion and caregiver. This may be invisible work, but there are many Halakhic opinions that recognize that the scholar’s wife is a full partner in his achievements.

The concept of invisible work is critical to how one reads the Parsha. It is easy to overlook Sarah as she stands in support of Avraham. She certainly is a good helpmate, who deserves credit for her unwavering support. But Sarah is much more than that. Not only does she do invisible work in support of her husband, but also she is an invisible hero who bears the brunt of Avraham’s sacrifices. The Mishna notes that Avraham’s faith is tried by God ten times; but a closer look at the Parsha recognizes that Sarah faced far greater challenges.

But there is another point of view: the wife of a scholar has the same status as a scholar because she is his life partner, and her husband’s achievements belong to her as well.

When they arrive in Egypt, Avraham asks Sarah to say she is Avraham’s sister, so Avraham might live. But what if Pharaoh takes Sarah anyway? Clearly, there was no exit strategy for Sarah, only Avraham; and undoubtedly, Sarah knew this. Without God’s intervention, Sarah would have remained a captive in Pharaoh’s harem while Avraham pursued his mission. (This test is repeated again later in Sarah’s life, when she is taken to the house of Avimelech; and without a clear exit strategy, Sarah is willing to sacrifice herself for Avraham once again.)

When Sarah sees how Avraham continually prays to God for a child, she makes another sacrifice. She offers Hagar as a concubine to Avraham, so he can have children; and this sacrifice is emotionally excruciating, one from which she never fully recovers. Sarah not only assists Avraham, but also she sacrifices herself completely for Avraham’s mission.

God sees Sarah’s sacrifices, and rescues her time and again. And at the end of the Parsha, something far more dramatic occurs. God changes Avraham’s name, from Avram to Avraham, to reflect his mission as “the father of a multitude of nations”; but he changes Sarah’s name as well, from Saray to Sarah, making it clear that she too is a full partner in this mission. The Midrash Rabbah remarks that Sarah was the true leader of the family, and offers the following insight: “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Korcha said: ‘The letter Yud that the Holy One of Blessing took from Sarai was given half to Sarah, and half to Avraham”; Sarah’s yud, with a numerical of ten, was divided into two letter “heys” with a numerical value of five. One is given to Avraham, and the other to Sarah. This letter “hey” is a metaphor for their relationship; it is Sarah’s contribution that makes Avram into Avraham, and shapes their unique mission.

Because the narrative in the Torah focuses mostly on Avraham, it is easy to overlook that the sacrifices Sarah makes are more exceptional. Invisible work is often undervalued; and so are invisible heroes like Sarah.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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