The Rabbi’s Wife’s Choice

June 1, 2014

While waiting impatiently for the copy of Robin Black’s novel that I preordered last July (damn these publishers and their extended marketing campaigns!), I saw that she’d published a new story on Five Chapters, and I went to it eagerly. Called “The Rabbi’s Wife,” it’s as well-crafted and psychologically complex as the stories in her first book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—and even more provocative.

To talk about it, I have to give away the surprise twist that emerges, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do that now, at this link. Then come back and argue with me about it. Because I’ve been arguing in silence with the author, and the main character, Hannah, and myself for several hours now, and I need somebody else to direct my rantings at.

OK, you’ve read it? So you know the story is about Hannah, nearing 70, widowed a few years ago when Ben, her rabbi husband, died. She stopped going to synagogue after his death and cut her ties with the congregation except for her best friend Myra. She wants to remember Ben as the man she married when they were both “graduate students in psychology, non-believers,” before he betrayed her, in a way, by becoming religious, essentially forcing her—though she agreed to it—into the role of “rabbi’s wife,” with all the public duties that entails: “Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kid of amputation of self.” And yet she realizes that she now is betraying him, in a way, by stripping him in her thoughts of the rabbi-role he cherished.

So far, this is typical of Black’s stories in its subtle moral insight and sharp analysis of the myriad small treacheries of everyday life. I can’t think of any contemporary writer who is better at this kind of vision. But then the story goes to another level as we learn more about Hannah’s current situation.

The immediate occasion of the story is Myra’s funeral—Hannah’s close friend and confidante has died suddenly. At the shiva, the gathering at Myra’s house, Hannah empathizes with Myra’s ex–daughter in law, who recently divorced Myra’s son. The young woman is too good for the son, and Myra had supported her in breaking free. As the story of the young people comes out, we learn more of Hannah and Myra, and we see that Hannah has a breaking-free for herself in mind.

Hannah has been dating a man, Peter, for eight months now. She likes him, even enjoys having him in her bed, where he forges “a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.” But now he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live—the same prognosis her late husband was given. Having suffered through the years of chemo, surgery and radiation with her husband, and then the inevitable grueling death, Hannah doesn’t feel she can do it again with Peter. Myra, her confidante, urged her to break off with him immediately: “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.” He has children, Myra pointed out. You’re not his wife, Myra argued. “He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this.”

Now Myra is suddenly dead and Peter is waiting for Hannah to come to him after the funeral. This nice man—a “genial man,” a “gentle being”—expects her to stay with him through his crisis. But as she sits alone in Myra’s bedroom gathering her thoughts, Hannah determines that she will not. She refuses to stomach another excruciating death. Life is unfair, she knows, and “she will conspire in the cruelty it brings.” She marches out on the way to Peter’s house, where her “newly ruthless self” will tell him, no doubt in the kindest possible terms, that she’s through with him and he’ll have to find others to help him die.

Finishing the story, which I read on a printout, I tossed the pages down in a small spasm of disgust. Hannah values her own comfort and sense of identity over the needs of her dying lover. At first thought, this seems too easy an assertion of the primacy of women’s rights over obligations to oppressive males.

But it’s not easy, of course. Hannah wishes deeply that she were not in this position. She doesn’t admire herself for deciding to be selfish for once. Eight months, the length of her relationship with Peter, is a terribly ambiguous amount of time: beyond casual, in our current way of assessing these things, but nowhere near an ironclad commitment.

And I’ve skipped over some of the details that deepen the story: the profusion of funerals that the rabbi’s wife attended over the years, the sense that there was always a death on the horizon; Hannah’s negotiations with Ben about the public role she would play when he became a rabbi; some insights into Myra’s character that enrich the advice she gives to Hannah. But it comes down to Hannah’s choice to stay with Peter or abandon him, a choice fraught with moral and psychological angst.

It’s interesting that when we consider such matters on a large scale, our sense of morality tends to shift. Should a people under the sway of a relatively benign but oppressive foreign power value freedom over loyalty, even if obtaining freedom means cracking some skulls? Yes, we said in the American Revolution. Yes, we would still say today. We will sacrifice lives (especially those of others) for freedom and self-determination. Personally, when I think about matters on this scale, a vague utilitarian calculation prevails: if, in the long run, there will be more happiness with freedom, then…

On the personal level the moral sense doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, yield to utilitarianism, and it’s harder to see justice in Hannah’s behavior. Yet it’s hard to blame her either. We can line up arguments for and against her:

For Hannah:

She surely doesn’t deserve the agony of nursing Peter to his death. Especially so soon after doing the same for Ben, her long-time husband.

Against Hannah:

Practically no one deserves the suffering life metes out. And Hannah’s total lifetime suffering, added up, doesn’t seem like a horrifying amount. She has had children she loved with a husband she loved; she has had friends in the congregation; she had her special friend, Myra. Yes, she lived a lie in some sense, but who doesn’t, in some sense?

For Hannah:

After surrendering to her husband’s desire to become a rabbi—because it amounts to that, ultimately, a surrender, even though we don’t see what particular dreams of her own she had to give up—she is not required to surrender to any other man’s needs.

Against Hannah:

Of course she’s not required to take care of Peter—and perhaps he’s wrong to assume she will—but we’re talking about what she ought to do. She deliberately chooses to be cruel to him to make her own life easier. She is not being asked to surrender anything except her own pleasure. That is selfishness, not good behavior.

How many more pro-con arguments could we list? Five, ten? Dozens?

I’m irritated with Robin Black for writing this story, and dazzled that she has created a text that provokes such dense reflection. I’ll keep thinking about the rabbi’s wife for a long while, and if I ever meet that old lady, I may scold her or hug her, or both.

7 Responses to “The Rabbi’s Wife’s Choice”

  1. How cruel is it to break up with someone? Come on. That’s life. She’s not over the top in deciding to end this relationship. I don’t see what’s cruel about it. Painful, but hey, it doesn’t feel right. That’s enough reason to end any relationship, esp if there’s no formal commitment, and there are no children involved.

    Second, I can’t tell you how many 60+ women I know who have decided not to get into serious relationships, because they had already nursed a man to death, or because they figure that statistically they’re likely too. One women has fallen wildly in love TWICE, but she refused to take the next step in both cases. Enough is enough. We women are tired.


    • Sam Gridley Says:

      Claudia, thanks for arguing! I understand your position, though obviously I can’t feel it as deeply as you do, and I understand what Hannah does in the story. It’s just that, as readers, we like sympathetic characters (which Hannah surely is) to end up being RIGHT, and for me she wasn’t right, she was just human and sympathetic and perhaps justified in social terms. She’s certainly not “over the top,” and I didn’t mean to suggest she was, though I still contend that her act is cruel. I thought about the possibility of a “middle ground,” and apparently the author did too, but in social and psychological terms that seems impossible to achieve. Isn’t this a marvelous story?–as packed with subtleties as a novel.


  2. Bonnie west Says:

    Goodness, this was nearly as good as the story itself!!! I had these same feelings but couldn’t express them so well as you have done. As I am in my late sixties the story had a profound affect on me. My answer? I wouldn’t have been as courageous as th Rabbi’s wife.


    • Sam Gridley Says:

      Yes, courage is a quality I didn’t mention. In the story Hannah’s going to need a great deal of gumption either way. If she stays with Peter, she’ll need the quiet, understated courage she exhibited throughout her marriage. In breaking off with him, she uses a rip-off-the-bandage-no-matter-how-much-it-hurts kind of courage.


      • anndeforest Says:

        Well, I keep pondering the questions raised in the blog and comments. I wouldn’t have called her choice courageous, though I can see how defying society’s expectations takes a kind of courage. What I’ve been thinking about more is how cleverly Robin plays with gender stereotypes (literary and social). If Hannah were a man I think most readers would want to tar and feather him. I can just imagine the vitriol heaped on an older, single man who severs a relationship with a lover when she tells him she’s terminally ill. But because Hannah is a woman and is resisting the traditional, assumed role of caregiver and helpmeet so readily imposed upon women, readers’ response to her is more sympathetic, less judgmental. She has already sacrificed her self throughout the marriage; why isn’t she allowed to have her own time and freedom? (I disagree, as I said above, and I appreciate that the author herself neither approves nor condemns, but leaves us with imagining what’s next for Hannah as she contends with her own ruthlessness.)


      • Sam Gridley Says:

        Right, I agree that if the genders were reversed, Hannah becoming Hank, readers would be more likely to condemn him. That’s a reflection on us as readers; it doesn’t change the moral rightness or wrongness of the choice the protagonist makes.


  3. anndeforest Says:

    I want to argue with her too. I recognize that self-justification. If she were my friend, I would listen sympathetically, let her make her own decision, but want to throttle her. But she’s a literary creation, and what I love is that the author, her creator, doesn’t necessarily advocate Hannah’s choice as convincingly delineate the process that leads to such a decision. I found the ending chilling. The image of that covered mirror to me represents Hannah’s death. I guess I would say the death of her soul. The irony is that in making a choice that feels like an assertion of life, she’s actually choosing entombment. Lynne Sharon Schwartz once wrote a fine short story with a similar theme: a woman visits her ex-husband and his messy, complicated, difficult family, shrewish second wife, impossible stepchildren, and leaves feeling like she’s escaped from prison. But the last line shifts that, as she’s faced with how sterile her own neatly constructed, single life is compared to his. I’ll try to dig up the title. Thanks for your post. Your comments helped stimulate my own thinking about this subtle story. As you said, like a novel.


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