When I immersed in the mikveh for the first time, on the eve of my wedding, I was elated. I was excited to enter a whole new realm of Jewish life: Taharat Hamishpacha, the Jewish laws that relate to marriage and sexuality. Here I am, I thought, joining the ranks of married Jewish women throughout history, following in their footsteps of ritual purity and spiritual rebirth.
I never lost that feeling of awe and excitement. But like many other halacha-observing women, I quickly discovered that maintaining taharat hamishpacha was far more challenging than I had expected. The rules seemed simple enough in theory, but in practice they were confusing and difficult to apply. In many cases, I needed guidance and found myself asking rabbis for advice. Talking to men about intimate issues, about my own body, was exceedingly awkward. Running into them the next day was even worse. Some women find this experience so off-putting that they stop keeping the laws altogether, or err on the side of caution and become unnecessarily stringent. I wondered then: Is the actual experience of taharat hamishpacha doomed to be stressful and unpleasant?
Rabbanit Chana Henkin and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (co-founders of Nishmat), heard this question many times. They saw many women stumbling through stress and insecurity. They saw the Jewish ideals of loving marriages and shalom bait (domestic harmony) compromised by the stringency and anxiety that often surround the observance of the laws. And sixteen years ago, they came up with an innovative way to make the laws far easier and more pleasant to observe.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin decided to train women as “yoatzot halacha” (halachic consultants), and certify them to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha. She coached the yoatzot to offer women knowledge and tools that empower them to be more independent and confident in their religious practice. And in 2003, she created the Golda Koschitzky Women’s Halachic Hotline, where callers can consult with the yoatzot in a safe, anonymous, women-only space.
The Yoatzot Halacha program was innovative and even revolutionary at the time, since authorizing women to fulfill traditionally rabbinical roles is highly controversial within Orthodox Judaism. The Henkins chose to avoid open controversies by changing reality slowly and gradually. “It was revolutionary in a quiet way,” says Robin Jacobowitz, who joined the program early on. “When we started studying there, we didn’t really know where this was going to go. Rabbanit Henkin, our dean and our mentor in Nishmat, could have said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to have a hotline.’ But instead she said, ‘let’s start studying and then we’ll see.’”
By now, the Halachik Hotline is a household name in mainstream religious society. And it successfully revolutionized many women’s religious experience. “I remember being in a very stressed situation. Getting friendly, easily accessible answers was wonderful,” says Chana, who first called the hotline twelve years ago. When she consulted a rabbi before, she felt uncomfortable. When she called the hotline she was pleasantly surprised to discover “how easy it was to talk to the woman advising me.” Like other women I interviewed, she points to the anonymity and availability of the line as additional advantages.
The yoatzot use the hotline as a way to tackle what Tirza Kelman, a veteran yoetzet halacha and the manager of the program’s Hebrew Facebook page, describes as the biggest difficulty in observing the laws: The gap between actual halacha and many women’s perception of it. Many women assume that the laws are strict and uncompromising, while in fact rabbis try to be as lenient as possible. This gap, says Tirza, “causes many women to be stringent in cases where there is no halachik need to be stringent, and sometimes also to give up things that have halachik importance because of things that have less halachik importance.”
A friend of mine discovered this gap on the eve of her wedding. She forgot to count days, and assumed she was impure. She prepared herself to start her married life without touching her groom. When her kallah instructor called the hotline for her, Tirza found leniencies she could rely on, and my relieved friend was spared the ordeal of a “Chupat Niddah“.
The yoatzot urge women to call and ask, instead of assuming that they’re “not pure” when in doubt. Many women, says Robin, don’t seek solutions and leniencies because they feel like it’s taking the easy way out. But being too stringent, and thus refraining from physical intimacy too often, goes against an important halachik principle as well. “The halacha was created as a blueprint for a way to enhance your married life and enhance shalom bait. I’m not looking to be mekel (lenient) in taharat hamishpacha, I’m looking to be machmir (stringent) in shalom bait.” The yoatzot teach women how to avoid impurity and offer solutions for specific problems. “Over the years I have been very impressed with their sound advice, and hakalot (leniencies) that I had no idea existed,” remarks Leah, a frequent caller to the hotline. The yoatzot she spoke to over the years “very often give tools to analyze situations better.”
Besides making religious observance easier, the Halachik Hotline is well placed to help individuals and couples in distress. Sometimes, couples who face challenges as a result of insufficient sexual education call the hotline for advice. “We do our best to guide them as gently and delicately as we possibly can,” Robin explains, “and refer them further when necessary.” At other times, halachik questions reveal underlying issues, like marital problems, abuse, or OCD. The Yoatzot are better equipped to recognize such issues than male rabbis. “Some of the rabbis have acknowledged to us that when they get a halachik question the woman is usually relatively abrupt, and they don’t always hear the background. But we women, as they say, love to shmooze. We will talk a little more, and often the question about Niddah is really the tip of the iceberg.” The yoatzot work with many different counselors and doctors, and refer the callers to the appropriate professionals whenever the need arises.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin’s quiet revolution made a profound impact on the religious experience, knowledge, confidence, and domestic harmony of numerous couples. This wouldn’t have been possible if not for women like Tirza and Robin, who were willing to rearrange their lives and spend hours answering questions and offering advice. Robin tells me of long hours of constant calls, and many worries. Did the couple she referred to marriage counseling take her advice? Did the crying bride on the phone relax after the call? Did she make a difference? She doesn’t know, but she continues to do her best. “Between politics, security and the economy, life is very stressful here. Marriage should be a place to relax,” she says. “I don’t want observance of halacha to be one more source of stress.”
The Golda Koschitzky Women’s Halachic Hotline is available every weekday from 6 pm (and on Saturday, from half an hour after Shabbat is over) till midnight, and every Friday morning. Nishmat’s Golda Koschitzky Center for Yoatzot Halacha offers taharat hamishpacha related information and tips also through its website and Facebook page. If you wish to support the center’s activity, you can donate via credit, debit, and paypal at: www.nishmat.net/support.