Generation after generation of rabbinical families over hundreds of years have passed down the role of the rabbi and the rabbi's wife, or rebbetzin.

Today, more and more rabbis' spouses refuse to be called rebbetzin, part of an effort to break out of a mold and develop identities of their own.

Esther Porath of Chevy Chase is one of these "women in transition," a child of the depression who didn't question her role as the wife of Rabbi Tzvi Porath of Ohr Kodesh Congregation until her children were almost grown.

She is a family therapist educated under the system developed by Dr. Murray Bowen at Georgetown University. Part of her return to school seven years ago demanded that she make a family tree document called a genogram.

When she did, she discovered that she was the descendant of a long line of rabbis and rebbetzin extending back to Rabbi Saadya Gaon in the 10th century. Porath believes she is the first one in the line to question the role. So her research grew out of a search for herself.

"Like most women of my generation, I was fused with my husband. I had no identity of my own. I was what I call a no-self person," she said.

"Then I thought of my mother, who never really questioned the role. She spent her life living up to other people's expectations. And so did we. I was told that I could only date certain boys. I should dress in a certain way because I was the rabbi's daughter and this is what was expected of me.

"Then I thought of my daughter-in-law, Deena [wife of her son, Jonathan, a rabbi in upstate New York]. She had her own job. She came into marriage as a self with determination that she was to live her life functioning within her own expectations and not haiving them imposed on her. She is very selective in her contacts with the congregation."

If Esther Porath currently is in a state of rebellion against being a rabbi's wife, there is no evidence of it.

Now, she says, she understands. "When you know the pattern that made you, it's easier to say yes," said Porath. "But when I go to Sisterhood and give talks, I talk about what I think, I expect them to listen to me as an individual . . . Some of them still don't understand that. They think it's strange."

Porath believes there have been more social changes in her generation "than any before mine. It's a miracle people cope, but they do."

Her own experience is an example: "I started out very much like my mother. I married a rabbi because I like the position, obviously. I followed a pattern which was not obvious to me at the time. I was in the first generation of rabbis' wives that started to work.

"I came into marriage with a master's degree in social work.It was not in my generation at that time to hold a job. When I had kids, I did volunteer social work."

Porath says she threw herself into the pattern passed to her through the generations, which she now calls being "a second-class citizen, always the bridesmaid, never the bride."

And though the prescribed rebbetzin role offers creative work such as writing book reviews and presenting her own plays and programs, she still had to qeustion it. Why?

"Women's lib began making its impact. While the younger women took the lead in defining their rights as individuals, their message was heard by my generation. As to be expected, it was heard by the rebbetzin, many of whom realized they were living through their husbands."

After seven years of research into her own family and the work she has done while detaching herself from her husband's identity - a process she calls "differentiation of self" - what are the results?

"Happier. I'm ," she believes she is healthier psychologically "and therefore, physically" and that she is better for her family because she is happier with herself.

"My kids and I get along better because we can be honest. What are our goals? We each want to become self-differentiating. We were not born that way. It takes a lot of work. My kids are doing the work and so am I.We respect each other. We have a lot to share."

She looks uncomfortable when a reporter observes that congregations whose rabbis' wives are independent may feel they are being cheated out of something. "I guess they do," she said. "I would need to think more about that." But she quickly adds that congregations who feel cheated out of the services of rebbetzin usually "voice their dissatisfaction."

Porath herself still spends a lot of time doing programming and writing scripts and appearing at functions - once she attended 23 in one day. "I don't mind going to a wedding when I've known someone all the time they grew up," said Porath, who has been at Ohr Kodesh for 25 years.

Last month, she was honored by the Sisterhood.

"I have the best of both worlds," she sums up.