By Alexandra Fleksher
When a man struggles to balance his identity as both a ben Torah and a ba’al ha’bayis, one can expect that his wife will struggle with their family’s identity as well. In fact, there is often a sharp disconnect between a wife’s initial expectations of an inspired family life and the reality she faces once her husband enters the ordinary workplace, often leading to her own crisis of identity.
Suggestions for improving this situation include raising the stature of the ba’al ha’bayis in the community, redefining “working” as part of the life of a ben Torah and not separate from it, and a concerted effort by the ba’al ha’bayis to develop close relationships with a rav and with peers.
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I just completed a three-year stint at a local Bais Yaakov teaching English literature and public speaking. Since the school has neither Internet access nor a secular library, I struggled in setting expectations for the girls’ requirement to do research for an informational speech. Eventually, I decided to assign a “biography speech.” Each student was asked to choose an ArtScroll or Feldheim biography of a gadol (Torah giant) and select three traits of this gadol as her focus. Despite the fact that my students’ speeches relied on a single source and were therefore one-sided, each year they came out rather good—at least according to my adjusted standards. The speeches were structured, organized, and well delivered. And—an unexpected bonus—I walked away feeling inspired by the stories of mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) and kavod haTorah (honor brought to the Torah) of these Torah giants.
While I enjoyed listening to these eager 12th-graders, the exercise left me with an uneasy feeling. Were the traits and behaviors praised in these speeches and offered as a model practically attainable in today’s world? Should our daughters be taught to strive to adhere to the standards of tznius and piety adhered to by Rebbetzin X? Should they be led to expect their future husbands to learn Torah with the single-mindedness of Rabbi Y? Our children are filled with the many beautiful and inspiring stories of the greatest of men and women, but do these stories make up the dreams of what my Bais Yaakov seniors should strive for and expect in a husband?
The reality is that most men, in even the most dedicated of families, will not remain on the Torah-learning-only path they are taught to embrace, and will eventually go to work. In what capacity, with what degree or vocational training, and in what time frame often depends on the type of yeshiva he attended, and is a topic for another discussion. Suffice it to say that there is often a disconnect between girls’ expectations and practical realities, as well as between what they anticipate will be their husband’s role and what Hashem actually has in mind. Both of these value areas significantly affect the criteria by which they will gauge their family’s growth, as well as the respect they will ultimately have for their husbands.
The Kollel Experience
The poster-girl Bais Yaakov graduate, who goes on to a recognized Bais Yaakov seminary, wants to be moser nefesh for Torah. The faceless, black-hatted bachur of her dreams ideally has some of the traits of her favorite seminary rabbis, as well as the drive, discipline, and devotion that she has been led to assume is normative and standard. She enters marriage eager to make the sacrifices that she is taught will enable him to achieve gadlus baTorah (greatness in Torah). The ideal presented to her in her years of formative chinuch is to marry a “learner.” It may be debated whether this goal is stated explicitly and formally, and certainly each Bais Yaakov and seminary has its own flavor. Furthermore, the expected kollel tenure of a “learner” means different things to different people. Yet despite the nuanced distinctions, a constant theme emerges: marry a working guy only if you have more materialistic needs and will not be able to tolerate the kollel lifestyle. If at all possible, though, start off your marriage in kollel and take it year by year for as long as you can make it work.
Starting one’s early years of marriage in kollel has many advantages. If financially feasible, the kollel lifestyle is one cloistered away from many of the secular world’s negative influences, enabling a husband and wife to establish the foundations of their relationship and family in a more protected environment. The kollel period also, of course, gives the husband a chance to learn full-time, building his Torah knowledge and focusing on his spiritual growth under the guidance of his rebbeim in a way that will no longer be available once he begins working. The husband and wife’s commitment to Torah and their striving for growth, in both hashkafah (outlook) and halachah, establishes the religious standards the couple would like to maintain and hold dear as they build their family, iy’H, in the years ahead.
While there are many benefits that a kollel period provides to couples who expect to enter the workforce, the conclusion of that period introduces significant practical, emotional, and attitudinal challenges. Does the yeshiva offer guidance to the kollelyungerman who is considering leaving kollel or who is already on his way out the door? Are husbands prepared for the major contrast in schedule and atmosphere between that of the kollel life and the workplace? Do these men feel confident and proud to begin working or disappointed and ashamed that they could no longer “make it in learning”? Finally, are former kollel members equipped with the skills and training necessary to become effective breadwinners?
For many kollel families, the departure from kollel produces an unprecedented confrontation, as the husband leaves the sheltered environment of the yeshiva and enters a broader world filled with many allures, both physical and ideological. He is leaving a Torah-only reality and entering a day filled with work, encumbered by the weight of financial responsibility and often the guilt of not having as much time and energy left to learn.
If the ideal presented to him in his yeshiva days was limited to “stay in learning as long as possible,” then he inevitably must contemplate whether he is now living a bedieved (second-best) existence. Yet if the message includes the greatness of being an honest ba’al ha’bayis who supports his family and is koveia itim (establishes a fixed learning schedule), then he is a success story with no harm done to his ego or neshamah (soul).
Many challenges face the ex-kollel wife, as well, and the struggles are equally complex. It is not uncommon for a woman to experience a crisis of identity once she and her husband are “no longer in kollel.” Much of her spirituality (including her entitlement to Olam HaBa, the World to Come, as she had learned) was dependent upon her husband’s learning. The more learning the better. And so while she may have been happy to excuse her husband from certain chores when his learning left him depleted of energy, she is less sympathetic when he arrives home from a long and exhausting day at work, helps with the homework–dinner–bath–bedtime routine, runs to Minchah/Maariv in between, and then considers whether to cancel his chavrusa (study partner). When he was learning full-time, her husband’s Torah study was keeping the world spinning. Now, his days at the office are so . . . mundane.
If the ideal presented to her in her seminary days is to support a husband in learning for as long as possible, then perhaps she feels disappointed, especially if her husband started working because she could no longer financially support their growing family. But if the message includes being an ishah kesheirah (supportive wife) who supports whatever and all Torah learning her husband does, and who is proud and appreciative that he is fulfilling his financial obligations of the kesubah (marriage contract), then she will be a happy akeres ha’bayis (pillar of the home) without any nagging feelings that her husband was not really successful in learning.
The Exalted Baal HaBayis: A Message For Our Youth
In our communities, the contemporary American frumba’al ha’bayis is a figure that is not talked about enough. He is not recognized for his significant contributions to Torah and the spiritual growth of his family and community. Some view him as the one who settles for daf yomi. Yet his learning, which he carves out early in the morning and/or late at night, is exceedingly precious to him, alongside his commitment to support his family. While actually quite heroic, the ba’al ha’bayis’s efforts are often left unrecognized and underappreciated. He may not be the askan (activist) or the philanthropist honored at the annual dinners, but he is doing his best to earn a living to pay the bills and tuition. He is koveia itim and observant of the Torah and its principles, even though he is faced with myriad religious challenges he never encountered while he was in the bais ha’midrash. The ben Torah ba’al ha’bayis should be lauded. He should be viewed as a community hero. And any Bais Yaakov graduate should be proud to stand by his side.
Girls need to hear that in addition to the choice of marrying a long-term learner, an equally heroic and no less spiritually striving option is to marry a ben Torah who is working, is in training for a career, or has concrete plans to go into a profession. Show them role models, ideally teachers, who are passionate about Torah and whose husbands are working. Teach them that while it takes hard work, they too—as a couple—can create a ruchniyus-centered and growth-oriented Torah home. Emphasize that being an akeres ha’bayis and supporting a husband’s learning means recognizing that whatever learning he is doing, he is building the world. And when the husband may struggle with learning time and no longer identify himself as a kollelyungerman, remind him to appreciate the grandeur of his commitment to Torah Judaism and the significant contribution he is making to both the family and the broader community. Help them realize the importance of women being aware of the struggles that men in the 21st century face, and to be grateful that a working husband has found his personal role in avodas Hashem (service of G‑d), making many efforts to make Torah primary in his life.
Seminaries and Bais Yaakovs need not be overly concerned that by taking this broader route, girls will no longer aspire to support their husbands in full-time learning. Presenting more than one way to be an akeres ha’bayis will not thwart the idealistic girls’ desires to marry a boy in learning, nor will it dissuade a girl who is considering it. On the contrary, it will open up avenues of respect for all types of bnei Torah and their wives, and it will provide further options for girls in forming their future vision of the women they want to become. Communicating a more expansive definition of what it means to be a supportive wife and a ben Torah is simply the honest, realistic, and necessary route. No one wants disappointed wives of frum working men who never took the opportunity to appreciate their husband’s role because “no one prepared them for this” in seminary.
It is important to note that many observant men in the workforce, together with their wives, understand and appreciate the importance of their role in providing for their families and in serving Hashem. In such families, the wife does not dismiss her husband as being second-rate for not learning full-time or not being able to learn as much as they both would prefer. Instead, she has a deep appreciation for his critical role and his efforts in supporting the family and in utilizing the gifts that Hashem gave him to contribute to the world. Both husband and wife are proud of their family’s role as Torah Jews and are aware of the imperative for all to make a kiddush Hashem (sanctify G‑d’s name), especially for those whose daily routines take them into the broader society. Perhaps this attitude stems from one’s upbringing or perhaps it is through formal chinuch. But it is this attitude that is critical to success in both family harmony and religious growth, and keeping this mindset will help the working man stay focused and inspired in doing his holy work of providing for his family.
Even if a ba’al ha’bayis does feel satisfied in his work, there is no doubt that being a breadwinner and ben aliyah (growing spiritually) at the same time is a stressful job. Consider, for instance, the concept of the Orthodox “superwoman,” a topic bemoaned by many a frum lady as an impossible standard. Shabbos and yom tov meals are always gourmet, health-conscious, and chicly presented, thanks to our new standards in kosher-cookbook cuisine. She has several kids in tow, all bedecked in the cutest, up-to-date styles. She looks awesome, sheitel perfect, and she is also in shape, somehow managing to make time for the gym. She is intimately involved in the local chesed organizations, regularly attends shiurim, and is perpetually positive, satisfied by her busy, blessed life and clearly a total eishes chayil (woman of valor). Even more mystifying is the woman who does all else, and also works, developing her many talents and thriving in her career in a professional setting. Just the thought of this wonder woman sends stress signals up the harried mother’s spine.
To be sure, the Orthodox “superman” ideal exists as well. Whether it is due to the numerous responsibilities of the religious lifestyle or compounded by the complicated reality of the 21st century, the frum husband of today has more than a full plate. The day is not only focused on going to work, being at work, and dealing with the stresses of work. Baruch Hashem, there are kids to spend time with and help with homework, there is learning and davening to make time for, and a wife to connect with, who could also do with a date night—and some help around the house. There are community matters to address and there are financial obligations to attend to, which fall under their own unique category of “Orthonomics.” He leads a morally upright life despite the temptations around him, some as close to him as in his pocket or on his desk. And, for the sake of his physical and emotional health, he wants—in fact desperately needs—to carve out time for self-care, exercise, and recreation. But how, and when? And have things always been so complicated?
Redefine “Working.” In a well-known letter written to Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt’l, by a yeshiva graduate, the student expresses his concerns about having entered the workforce and feeling that he leads a “double life.” In one world, he has his Torah and mitzvos, while in the other, his job and other obligations. Rav Hutner suggested that the student was simply viewing the respective roles incorrectly. There are not two independent roles that are being played, but rather varying functions within a single role: being an eved Hashem (servant of G‑d). Rav Hutner proposed the metaphor of describing the young man’s life as a house, and that broadening his life by working was akin to adding on another room (Pachad Yitzchak, Letter 94).
I read this letter while I was still in seminary and it has never left me. Rav Hutner’s advice provides insight for all wives of ba’alei batim and, of course, for ba’alei batim themselves, whether or not they spent time learning in yeshiva before working. The chol (mundane) aspect of work and the kodesh (holy) aspects of life should not be viewed as separate parts. They are all segments of a beautiful, broad life being lived as an eved Hashem. One’s profession is nothing less than a facet of one’s avodah. It is an extension of oneself—a manifestation of one’s strengths and talents. On an ideal level, having the opportunity to work simply broadens one’s reality.
Aseih Lecha Rav. As life becomes more complicated and responsibilities increase, it is crucial that our priorities and time allocations be periodically reviewed and reassessed. In the context of a rushed life fraught with competing demands for our attention and time, a person’s vision often is blurred by personal preferences and needs. While a husband and wife generally may be able to work through disagreements on priorities and time allocations, occasional third-party objective and wise counsel is helpful. Having a rav who knows and understands you, and with whom you are comfortable, is important, as he can give you guidance in helping you prioritize various, and often conflicting, responsibilities.
This rav is also essential in navigating the learning/earning equation. For those men who spent significant hours of their day learning in kollel and are now spending most of their hours working, the counsel of a rav will prove invaluable in helping to alleviate the struggles involved in reorienting one’s learning that many face when leaving kollel. Furthermore, many rabbanim have stressed how important it is for men to find satisfaction in their learning and not just learn because they are supposed to; men who are working may need to make an effort to communicate with their rebbeim to develop an approach to learning that will remain satisfying throughout their lives.
K’neih Lecha Chaveir. Neither men nor women should underestimate the benefit of seeking out the friendship and counsel of others. Even though men often wince at the suggestion that they need others for support and input, ba’alei batim can benefit greatly from developing friendships with others who share similar values and aspirations and who also struggle with that work/life/learning balance. There may be the friend who learns early in the morning, the neighbor who jogs at night, the chavrusa who takes his family on outings on Sunday afternoons. Mature adults, no less than youngsters, need role models. They can be found in real people and also in great figures in Jewish history who were both talmidei chachamim and working men.
In conclusion, there is so much to admire in today’s ba’al ha’bayis. As the wife of a former full-time learner and current full-time worker, I recognize the challenges that my husband faces, yet I am confident that Hashem is proud of his contributions to his family, community, and the world around us. To the ba’al ha’bayis of today: Don’t be overwhelmed by the numerous and potentially daunting responsibilities of the Torah-observant man. With guidance, seek a way to balance, not juggle, the many blessings of your life. Be that example to other ba’alei batim and, very importantly, to our youth—young men and women—of what it means to be an eved Hashem who also works for a living. v
Reprinted from Klal Perspectives (www.klalperspectives.org), Winter 2015:
The World of the Baal Habayis.
Alexandra Fleksher holds a master’s in Jewish education from the Azrieli Graduate School. Over the past 12 years, she has taught in community schools and Bais Yaakov.