Sisterhood Blog

Female Rabbis Should Have Male Friends

By Danya Ruttenberg

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Does a woman need to give up friendships with members of the opposite sex when she marries a man? For Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin, the answer is yes.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

In a piece for Tablet, she writes about the decision to write a friend — a Catholic priest with whom she said explicitly she would never have a sexual relationship — an email curtailing their friendship.

Then, it happened: I thought I had some time to meet Nick one evening, and I found myself not wanting Joshua [her husband] to come along. At first, I wasn’t sure where the feeling was coming from. Then I realized that I was longing to pour out my heart to someone, and Nick seemed like both an ideal candidate and — because my husband should have been my primary confidant — the wrong choice. I decided not to see him, and that’s when I wrote him the email.

She notes that though she is now also more “discreet” in her friendships with women than she had been in the past, she feels a “special danger” when the friend is a man, because close friendships can be so emotionally intimate. “Now I want only Joshua to know the secret me,” she writes.

Of course, Miller Solomin is an adult, and should absolutely conduct her relationships as feels right to her. But this piece makes me wonder a lot of things.

For starters, why does the gender of her friend matter? That is, what do the genitals that you’re not planning to touch have to do with the quality of the relationship you have? The idea that men and women cannot relate in a way that does not have sexual undertones tends to reinforce itself — the more segregated a society is, the more fraught even the smallest encounter becomes. (Embedded in this distinction is, of course, the assumption that everyone is always both cisgendered and heterosexual.) The more we normalize deep connections with all manner of people, the less gender should be a factor at all.

But perhaps most critically, why is your spouse is supposed to be the center of your universe, fulfilling every last one of your emotional needs? How could that possibly be? We all contain multitudes, and different people will connect with different aspects of our selves. Loving our primary partners is not mutually exclusive with the desire to pour out our hearts to someone who is more like us emotionally, or who travels in our professional circles, or who has a different way of thinking.

But more than that — more connection leads to more love, more support, more community, more depth, more meaning. Why would we want to isolate ourselves from people with whom we can experience an I-Thou encounter, with whom we can feel seen and see in turn? Why would we want less love in our lives? I reject the notion that there is a finite amount of love available, and that we must conserve it carefully for people who play particular roles in our lives. Just as any parent of more than one child can tell you — with the second kid, the love doesn’t get cut in half. It multiplies, exponentially, filling up corners of your life you didn’t even know were there or empty. As the Medieval philosopher Shlomo Ibn Gabriol put it, “don’t exchange an old friend… while his heart is still true to you… nor let a thousand friends seem too many.”

I’m married. I love my partner desperately, and he plays a role in my life that no one else can or should. And I’m grateful — blessedly, exquisitely grateful — that I have communities and confidantes of all stripes and genders with whom to share in this crazy mystery of living. I’m glad that Miller Solomin has someone who sees the secret her. I just would rather not have so many secrets.


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