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The truth about yoatzot halacha: Responses and reflections

From the trenches, an educated perspective on Orthodox women being legal advisers for the family purity laws

The group Chochmat Nashim has issued a fairly compelling statement authored by Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, Rachel Stomel, Tamar Weissman and Anne Gordon advocating for more widespread acceptance of yoatzot halacha (women advisors on Jewish law) given their role in increasing the observance of taharat hamishpacha (the Laws of Family Purity) over the past fifteen years.

In the name of honest discourse about the matter, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has published a post on Cross-Currents in which he quotes their statement and offers several possible responses with the caveat, “to the likely chagrin of some of my friends, I have to say that this man’s inner jury is still out on the question.”

I take this opportunity to respond to Rabbi Adlerstein’s list of objections to yoatzot halacha. After that response, although I am largely in agreement with the perspective of Chochmat Nashim, I will share a few significant reservations I have regarding their statement.

Many of Rabbi Adlerstein’s objections seem to emanate from misconceptions regarding the training and practice of yoatzot halacha. As Rabbi Adlerstein himself writes, “I relied on several sources for these bullet points; they are not all of my manufacture.” For the sake of clarity, I have included citations from Rabbi Adlerstein’s text in italics and responded to each point individually. It is my sincere hope that the reality regarding the training and work of yoatzot halacha will be understood so that more couples can benefit from the avodat hakodesh (holy work) that yoatzot halacha are passionately engaged in.

1) “It may very well be true that yoatzot have provided a great service to women who were uncomfortable bringing niddah [menstruation] issues to male rabbis. But they have unconsciously performed a disservice at the same time. Many areas of halacha require local knowledge of the personal circumstances of the one asking the question. A local rav [rabbi], aware of such circumstances, can use flexibility where available because he knows the woman and her family. A yoetzet, often serving an area far from where she lives, cannot…The personal dimension that is often important in psak [legal decision] has become a victim to the innovation of yoatzot.”

A number of responses are in order here:

  • Due to the role that personal circumstances can indeed play in determining the appropriate answer to a question, the preference of both the flagship Jerusalem-based center of women’s Torah study Nishmat, as well as many communities in the US, is for the yoetzet halacha to live in the community in which she serves. This has been the model in a number of US communities, and as Nishmat graduates more yoatzot from their US program it will be even more pervasive. At the same time, while it may be the case that in an ideal world every yoetzet, or for that matter every rav, only answers questions for people whom he or she knows personally, this is simply not a feasible reality. Given this, isn’t it preferable for women to be asking questions than not asking at all?
  • Yoatzot who answer questions for communities in which they do not live spend a significant amount of “face time” in those communities at social events, delivering shiurim (Torah classes), and casually interacting with the women. This provides the yoatzot with the opportunity to form relationships and to get a feel for the women that they are serving.
  • When a yoetzet halacha answers a question for someone whom she does not know, she will — as any person answering a halachic (Jewish law) question will do — sensitively ask the caller to provide any additional information that is relevant for her to know in order to appropriately answer the question.
  • Many of the questions that yoatzot halacha receive do not require knowing the personal circumstances of the individual in order to provide the appropriate response.

2) “Many women report that they are uncomfortable asking questions about such private matters to men, and have no hesitations coming to yoatzot…But the cure of yoatzot may be short-sighted…while tzniyus [modesty] is a wonderful midah [character trait], there are times that its expression will change. Rav Moshe zt”l and others, asked whether frum [religious] women should seek out female OB/Gyn’s used to answer, “Go to the best physician.” It must surely be uncomfortable for women to do so. Yet they understand that there is a time and place for everything. We try to convey to our students that bodies are not things to be ashamed of, even if we shun gratuitously displaying them. We teach (at least we used to) sugyos [passages] in the Gemara dealing with all kinds of intimate details….Through this, they…absorb that, bottom line, the Torah addresses all aspects of life. If there are women who find it so completely demeaning to discuss intimate issues with a male rav, perhaps the solution ought to be better chinuch [education].”

Let us not pretend that asking a question about hilchot niddah (laws pertaining to menstruation) feels the same to most women as asking about the status of chicken cooked in a dairy pot. The anecdotes that Chochmat Nashim’s statement contains, the numerous similar sentiments that yoatzot have heard from women, the data regarding the relative call volume of yoetzet to rabbi, and the tens of thousands of questions that Nishmat’s website, hotline and yoatzot have received all attest to the fact that many women simply feel more comfortable speaking to a woman about their menstrual cycles and intimate lives than to a man. I do not believe that this is negative. Rather, it is a testimony to the tzniut that we have worked so hard to inculcate into Jewish women in a world where in fact the opposite — broadcasting every intimate details of our lives — is the modus operandi. For women for whom asking a rabbi is comfortable, ma tov u-mah na’im (that is lovely). However, for those for whom it is not, yoatzot provide another avenue for halachic guidance and emotional support.

3)“When I learned in kollel, the mashgiach [spiritual mentor] had a particularly strong background in ma’aros [evaluating staining]. Scores of young couples asked lots of questions. Never did a woman, to the best of my knowledge, ever have to face the mashgiach. Her husband brought the question! Many decades ago, rabbonim [rabbis] got into the habit of leaving drop-boxes in front of their houses… If the rav wanted more information, he could use a call-back number, but preserving the woman’s anonymity — and modesty. While the authors cite some terrible stories of rabbinic overstep of propriety, the solution may be fixing the problems, rather than coming up with a different mousetrap.”

Although this system of anonymity has worked and continues to work for some women, there are three main issues with it:

  • While it may be more comfortable for the woman to not have to see the face of the male answering the question, this leaves no opportunity for natural and comfortable discourse regarding what she is showing or what the “question behind the question” is. Even if the rabbi asks follow-up questions via third party, there is no avenue for the woman to comfortably share the other information that may be relevant that she is not being asked about. As those answering she’elot (Jewish law inquiries) well know, these conversations can be absolutely integral to her receiving the correct halachic answer — which often has far-reaching implications for her emotional well-being and shalom bayit (peaceful household). Why should we siphon off the incredible potential that yoatzot halacha have — within the bounds of halacha — to enhance shmirat hamitzvot (religious observance), shalom bayit and mental health?
  • Things often get lost in translation. The woman describes the scenario to her husband. He, never having experienced what his wife is describing, may or may not fully understand. Then he, hopefully correctly, conveys it to the rabbi. If the rabbi has questions, this process then needs to be repeated. There is so much room for error. In an area of halacha where there is the potential for the violation of an issur karet (prohibition with punishment of being cut off) if one is too lenient, and challenges to shalom bayit if one is too stringent, this is not a sacrifice that we should make if it can be avoided. Perhaps yoatzot halacha are a better “mousetrap” than the drop-box system.
  • Yoatzot halacha do more than answer halachic queries; they often provide emotional support as well. Women attest to the fact that they appreciate that this support comes from a fellow woman who cannot only sympathize, but also empathize. For example, yoatzot often counsel women regarding the frustration and anxiety that result when their bodies do “not cooperate” with a couple’s plans. These situations range from prolonged niddah due to breakthrough bleeding from a new pill to the inability to conceive as quickly or as easily as desired. The drop-box or third-party systems essentially send the message that the role of the rabbi is merely to provide an answer — and no more. But women want, and often need, more than that.

4) “I don’t know what texts they use. I do know that there are places in which rabbis are trained in Yoreh Deah [a work of Jewish law] by lectures on appropriate simanim [sections]. I would never go to such a rav… I know of children who…could not have come into this world without Rav Moshe’s extraordinary grasp of halachah…He was able to be meikal [lenient] because he knew everything…We no longer have Rav Moshe, but we have people who can still do much more than those who have memorized lists of accepted decisions in different circumstances…I’m sure that Yoatzot have heard of the concept to sefeik sefaikah [a legal construct regarding matters of doubt]…But I would not want to entrust any halachic issue to someone who hasn’t plowed through Yoreh Deah siman 110, and thereby made sefeik sefaikah a good friend, rather than a casual acquaintance. Nor would I ever entrust a niddah question to someone who could not independently study a Chavos Daas, or a Sidrei Taharah [works of Jewish law on Family Purity].”

The author himself indicates that the concern presented in the above paragraph is specious (“I don’t know what texts they use”). Yoatzot do not sit for two years and memorize psakim. Nishmat’s curriculum, under the auspices of Rav Yehuda Henkin, entails more than 1,000 hours of rigorous textual chavruta (cooperative) study including Gemara, Rishonim, Tur and Shulchan Aruch with nosei kelim and poskim (all traditional works of Jewish law). This includes studying many more than one Chavot Da’at or Sidrei Tahara. This is followed by hours of iyun (rigorous study) and practical halacha shiurim by esteemed talmidei chachamim (scholars). Fellows take a test after completing each topic in the Shulchan Aruch and are orally tested after the full two years of study by a panel of rabbis for four hours on the entirety of their learning. In addition, yoatzot halacha are the beneficiaries of Nishmat’s outstanding supplementary curriculum, which educates them about the numerous areas of women’s health that intersect with taharat hamishpacha: gynecology, infertility, psychology, family dynamics, abuse, sexual dysfunction, genetic testing and other such topics.

5) “While the yoatzot seem to be very well trained, their background cannot be the equivalent of a talmid chacham who has spent many years learning.”

There is much to be said for broad exposure to multiple areas of halacha and the perspective that it provides. There are some yoatzot who have not had the privilege of spending many years learning, while others have spent much time studying at institutions of higher learning both in the US and in Israel. The critical point is, as Rabbi Adlerstein writes, “the yoatzot seem to be very well trained.” There is tremendous merit to the fact that they have been afforded the opportunity to devote two years to becoming specialists in one area of halacha. The combination of Nishmat’s rigorous course of study, the tests that one must pass, and education regarding when one can answer a question on her own and when she needs to consult with a posek (decisor of Jewish law) ensures that women who ask yoatzot questions are most certainly not receiving mediocre or sub-par halachic or personal guidance.

6) “While some yoatzot realize that they should check with people who have learned much longer than they have, this is not always the case.” 

It will never be the case that every practitioner in any field will consult with a higher authority when he or she really needs to — even if this is what best practice dictates. No program can expect 100% perfection from its graduates. Sometimes people mistakenly overestimate their abilities, and unfortunately sometimes suffer from hubris. As a member of two yoatzot halacha listservs and part of the professional community of yoatzot, it is abundantly clear to me that the accepted practice is indeed, “when in doubt, ask” — as it should be. That yoatzot work with, and not against rabbis does not only mean that yoatzot serve as alternate addresses for questions; it also means that they consult with poskim when there is a question that their training and experience has not equipped them to answer.

7) “Along the way, the author [of Chochmat Nashim’s statement] described the function of yoatzot: ‘The graduates of that program pass tests and receive the title yoatzot halachah, thus certifying that a questioner could rely on the ruling of that yoetzet.’ Ruling? We had previously been told that Yoatzot wouldn’t rule — that they might answer questions about cut-and-dried situations (which are not rulings at all, just conveying information), or take the more complicated questions to a talmid chacham equipped to discern and decide between competing halachic arguments. If the author is correct, opposition to Yoatzot will grow.”

Opposition to yoatzot will grow, or remain, if people do not take the time to clarify what the true training and practice of yoatzot are. Yoatzot are often asked to be mareh makom (guides) — to educate a woman regarding what the halacha is in a simple situation. In complex situations that require psak, as Nishmat clearly states in their materials, they consult with rabbis. For in-between cases, it depends on the knowledge and experience of the particular yoetzet halacha.

8) “While some yoatzot are impressive for their dedication and yiras shomayim [God-fearingness], others are less so….There is more than a bit of suspicion, based on what some have said and written, that the aspiration of the Yoatzot project does not stop at hilchos niddah, but is a slow-growth (and therefore more responsible) method of moving to egalitarianism.”

The same can be said of rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders: While some are impressive for their dedication and yirat shamayim, others are less so. Does that mean that the entire rabbinate and cadre of Jewish leadership should be disqualified? Women are accepted into the yoetzet halacha program not only for their background in learning and their interpersonal skills, but equally importantly for their commitment to upholding the principles of halachic Judaism to the highest level. There is no larger “project” or agenda. The goal of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program is to produce yoatzot.

9) “Some who could not themselves formulate an opinion looked to those greater than themselves. They pointed to important people who have grave reservations about yoatzot, including at least four roshei yeshiva [leading rabbis] at YU….Employing yoatzot represents a change in the way we have done halacha for centuries…it does call for following the protocol that Klal Yisrael [the Jewish People] has always used –- namely, seeking the imprimatur of gedolei ha-dor [leading Torah scholars of the day]…There are some fine people who back the idea of yoatzot, but none of them are recognized as belonging to the upper echelon of gedolim [greats]. We ought not, the argument goes, change fundamental structures and roles in Judaism, including the issue of who handles various halachic matters, without the full support of gedolei Torah.”

The yoetzet halacha program bears the stamp of approval of gedolei Torah including Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, and Rav Nahum Rabinovitch. In addition, it is supported by numerous well-respected rabbis and talmidei chachamim in both Israel and the US For an extensive list of these individuals in the US who support and/or employ yoatzot halacha, click here.

Finally, let us turn to the statement of Chochmat Nashim. While it does a stellar job of highlighting the ways in which yoatzot fill vital roles as alternative halachic resources for those who would rather consult with a woman, a number of the anecdotes in their statement paint rabbis, most of whom are extremely qualified and capable, in a negative light. This is regarding three realms: their training, their expertise, and their sensitivity.

  • Training: “Given the Yoatzots’ specialization in Hilchot Niddah and the practical applications of these halachot, they are much better equipped to deal with these specific issues than the average rabbi…In a classic Semicha [ordination] program, one studies multiple areas of Halacha in the span of four years.”

Many rabbis come to semicha with tremendous backgrounds in learning, spend more than the ‘required’ amount of time studying hilchot niddah, take advantage of opportunities to learn about the intersecting areas of women’s health, and some go on to learn even after they have officially received their semicha. In addition, as one can attest to in any field, one learns a tremendous amount “on the job.” Therefore, while it may true that some yoatzot are more qualified than some rabbis, it is absolutely not unequivocally the case.

  • Expertise: “Women who suffered from ‘halachic infertility,’ where the very observance of halacha impeded conception, as well as women who felt alienated and frustrated by taharat hamishpacha, even to the point of giving it up entirely, now have an address for halachic assistance and comfort…”

For some women, yoatzot have provided this address. For others, rabbis have been and continue to be exceedingly helpful and sensitive in assisting couples with these challenges. Let us remember that yoatzot halacha are the beneficiaries of the centuries of halachic discourse of sensitive rabbis who have grappled with how to appropriately balance multiple supreme Jewish values: observing hilchot niddah on the one hand, and creating shalom bayit and building Jewish families on the other.

  • Sensitivity: “I once called to ask a simple question and the rabbi asked for my name to which I questioned why my name was at all important in relation to the question….He said he would not answer without knowing who I was. I told him that if he doesn’t just answer the halachic question I would not ever come to any rabbi to ask again. He continued to refuse so I hung up.”

I would expect that the readership understand that this is certainly not the typical experience that women have with rabbis, and would also hope that the intent of Chochmat Nashim’s statement is not to disqualify rabbis from answering questions. While this rabbi certainly mishandled the situation, there are scores of other rabbis — some of them staunch supporters of yoatzot halacha themselves — whose sensitivity and understanding cannot even begin to be articulated. These are rabbis who, like yoatzot, do “provide an understanding ear and know the right questions to ask in order to determine ways to alleviate some of the difficulty.”

As the hard and anecdotal data suggests, yoatzot halacha, the brain-child of Rabbanit Chana Henkin, have clearly altered the landscape of taharat hamishpacha observance throughout the world. More women are asking questions, more women are observing halacha correctly, more women feel supported in their struggles, and it would follow that there is a consequential increase both in shalom bayit and respect for the halachic system. Let us spread the correct information about the work of yoatzot halacha so that rabbis and yoatzot can together help women, couples and families navigate this sensitive and often challenging area of Jewish law.

The author wishes to thank Dalia Shulman, Yoetzet Halacha, for her editorial assistance.

Ed. note: Parenthetical translations added by The Times of Israel.

About the Author
Tova Warburg Sinensky serves as the Yoetzet Halacha in the the Greater Philadelphia area. She also works as the Greater Philadelphia Community Mentor for the Jewish New Teacher Project and teaches at Kohelet Yeshiva in Merion Station, P.A.
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