How a Polarizing Best Seller Became Required Reading for Orthodox Jewish Women

The book, rooted in modern Christian fundamentalism, has captured the attention of this insular community.

jewish women sitting in an audience
The book's popularity highlights how an insular religious group can be quite porous to outside influence. (Sharon Pulwer)

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

The book, with its kitschy cover illustration of a red rose, has made the rounds for years. By the time I became a bride in 2015, it was status quo, passed around alongside the traditional recommended readings on ritual purity and Jewish marriage. The Surrendered Wife is a title frequently invoked among Orthodox Jewish women, quoted during mom walks with strollers and discussed in WhatsApp groups. Premarital teachers recommend the text to young brides-to-be. Rabbis and their wives preach from it, framing it around selective quotes from the Torah and Talmud.

In the controversial 2001 best seller, the American author Laura Doyle argues that the key to a happy marriage is a wife relinquishing control and allowing her husband to handle all decision making, including household finances, a lifestyle that is rooted in conservative biblical principles. “When you surrender to your husband, you accept that a supreme being is looking after you both,” reads one passage. “The more you admire your husband’s magnificence and how everything about him is just as it should be, the more you will feel God’s presence.” Though these tenets are rooted less in Jewish textual traditions than in the New Testament and in fundamentalist-Christian notions of wifely submission, they have seeped into the Orthodox community over the past two decades.

The Surrendered Wife’s popularity highlights how an insular religious group with carefully preserved boundaries can in fact be quite porous to outside influence—particularly to views popular on the American Christian right. A mini-industry of Orthodox “Laura Doyle coaches” and educators has emerged, most of them unlicensed yet fashioning themselves as quasi-therapists, offering marital-harmony courses and workshops. Drawing from Doyle’s text (albeit sometimes without Doyle’s direct involvement or instruction), they teach women how to accept their husbands, to never criticize, and above all, to be aidel, the Yiddish word for “refined” or “demure.” But recently, the book’s proliferation in the community has stirred controversy, as some Orthodox women began to publicly criticize this sort of marriage education.

Traditional Jewish texts are complex regarding marriage. Though ancient Jewish law sees marriage as a sort of financial transaction, giving husbands control over their wife’s vows and ability to divorce, the idea of female surrender as a virtue is a foreign import. As intra-community struggles over Orthodox women’s rights have grown more heated in the past decade, this sort of literature has found a home within the community. Social media has created grassroots platforms for religious women to speak up about issues such as female erasure in public spaces, the right to divorce, access to female-provided emergency medicine, and sexual abuse. And in response, “there’s a real communal concern about what would happen if women would start to assert themselves,” Rivka Press Schwartz, an Orthodox educator, told me. “There is something scary for individual women about the power of their own anger, and it’s easier to say, ‘I choose to be surrendered in order to make my husband happy, to make me happy.’”

What’s more, The Surrendered Wife has attracted many Orthodox Jewish women who see it as a solution to what they perceive to be a marriage crisis. “I just wanted to share that I can honestly say that Laura Doyle book saved my marriage,” one woman wrote in a letter published on an Orthodox Jewish women’s lifestyle blog. Others see female submission as harkening back to a more traditional past. “May I venture to say that the reason why [Doyle] is so ‘controversial’ is that she is going back to what marriage used to look like?” wrote another woman in that blog’s comment section. “Her concepts are very much in line with the Torah perspective … Many rabbonim [rabbis] approve of her method.” (Doyle did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

One of the most popular proponents of reframing Doyle’s work for Orthodox Jewish audiences is the American-born, Jerusalem-based author Sara Yoheved Rigler, who in 2013 created the “Kesher Wife Workshop”—a virtual seminar series that she has described as offering “basic ideas from The Surrendered Wife amplified by the Torah.” Rigler has said that she has given this workshop to 2,000 Jewish women internationally. On a popular Orthodox podcast last year, she spoke about reframing dissatisfaction with one’s husband as heaven-sent. “This is from Hashem,” she tells her students, using the Hebrew word for God. “It’s not from my husband. I’m going to stop blaming my husband, criticizing my husband, because everything that happens to me is from Hashem.” That perspective, she suggested, “takes the sting out of it.”

But some women are calling into question the merits of these parallels drawn to Jewish doctrine. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, a scholar of Jewish women’s history and an Orthodox educator, told me that seminars like these are “a retelling of a completely non-Jewish ideology in Jewish terms in order to push girls and women into adopting a new social norm.” Another woman I spoke with, Rachel Tuchman, was engaged to be married when she first heard of the ideology, in 2003. “I couldn’t believe that it had infiltrated our community,” she told me. In her work as a licensed mental-health counselor in Cedarhurst, New York, where many of her clients are from varying Orthodox backgrounds, Tuchman told me she observes firsthand the consequences of subscribing to The Surrendered Wife’s ethos. “A lot of kallah [premarital] teachers are recommending the book, and I think that’s why it’s getting [attention] … Then people end up in therapy and … [I’m] like, ‘Where did you learn that this is how you should have a relationship?’” Doyle’s book may have gained nearly doctrinal status among many women, but, Tuchman said, it’s not based in Orthodox principles—“it’s really a cultural-societal influence.”

To some religious women, though, the question of authenticity is not as urgent as seeking the key to a happy marriage in a terrifyingly modern world. “There’s kind of a sense of family life being under attack, that the world out there is not welcoming to families, that the world out there is trying to get everyone divorced,” said Keshet Starr, the director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which is devoted to resolving contentious Jewish divorce cases. Some women, she said, are “looking for this perfect formula: Just follow these rules, and you’ll have a perfect, amazing marriage.” Fear of the outside world is prevalent—and, ironically, the solution to dealing with that fear comes from the outside, too.

According to historians, the American embrace of wifely submission was popularized in the 19th century with the cult of domesticity, or the cult of “true womanhood.” As men went to work outside the home and middle- and upper-class white women stayed back to manage the household, American religious literature and women’s magazines began to preach four virtues for the ideal wife: domesticity, purity, piety, and submission. Female labor outside the home was needed during the world wars, but afterward, the notion of wifely submission reentered the popular discourse, in an attempt to return to some myth of an idyllic America. “Part of that is reimagining the home,” Beth Allison Barr, a history professor at Baylor University and the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, told me over Zoom. “Part of it was ‘What do we do with all these displaced men who have just gone through this horrible thing?’ Part of it is ‘Let’s get them back in jobs; let’s build back their self-esteem.’ And part of that was reordering the household.”

The pendulum swung back and forth: The 1960s brought the sexual revolution, and then, Barr said, the early ’70s brought a desire for religious education. Some 1,600 women were enrolled in Southern Baptist divinity programs, many of them likely seeking ordination. “If all of those women came through, there was going to be significant displacement [of men]. And it is at that time that we see that crackdown,” Barr noted. In 1979, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced a conservative resurgence—and within a few years came conservative Christians’ widespread adoption of the verses in Ephesians 5: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Barr characterizes the rise of the wifely-submission ideology, and the use of language like “biblical womanhood,” largely as a reaction to ascendant female religious power. “And then it just explodes onto the scene.”

Many religious Americans, both Christians and Jews, point to God’s punishment of Eve (“And he shall rule over you”) as proof of female submission being divinely commanded. That reading sees the text as prescriptive. In fact, the central description of the ideal wife, according to Genesis, is as a “helpmate opposite him.” It is this phrase in Hebrew, ezer k’negdo, that is most cited in the Orthodox Jewish community: in girls’ schools, at wedding ceremonies, in eulogies. The phrase suggests that a spouse ought to be a foil, a point of contrast, neither a mirror nor a servant. The righteous wife is also often referred to as akeret habayit, the bedrock of the home, in a complementarian sort of way; families sing an ode to the “woman of valor” at the Sabbath table weekly, praising the Jewish wife as both a domestic queen and a shrewd businesswoman.

But as today’s Orthodox women attain educations, pursue careers, become breadwinners, access the wider world through the internet, and even build independent platforms for themselves, that complementarianism has been challenged. Some community influencers have turned to conservative American Christian thought for its language on submission within a religious framework, in order to maintain a certain status quo around gender. This sort of anxiety isn’t new—the history of modern-day Orthodoxy is one long chain of reactions to outside influences, whether dominant religious cultures or secularism. Orthodox Judaism as a whole has grown more stringent, in what sociologists call a “slide to the right,” as a response to the pervasiveness of secular culture. And yet, as Doyle’s influence shows, this community’s boundaries are, as ever, permeable. “There’s no way to exist in American culture and not be in some way influenced by it,” Ginsparg Klein, the Jewish women’s-history scholar, said. “Throughout history, the Jewish community has been influenced by its surrounding culture and has likewise influenced its surrounding culture.”

Indeed, the Orthodox Jewish adoption of The Surrendered Wife is part of a bigger trend: As large swaths of the community have aligned themselves with the Christian right, they’ve built political alliances based on the idea of a shared Judeo-Christian worldview, on concerns about social issues regarding abortion and gender, and on a general sense of an existential threat posed by secular progressivism. Concurrently, a younger generation of religious women that is plugged in to online discourse is being exposed to alternative critical voices. The tension will only continue to grow. As this community struggles with assimilation and with its boundaries around authenticity, the outcome of that struggle will likely set the tone not just for the design of a home, but also for female visibility and leadership in the Orthodox sphere.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.