Sunday, 22 November 2015

Defending Yoatzot Halachah

I've been refraining from writing anything about the decision of the RCA to release a statement against women serving in communal roles (mainly through lack of time, not lack of opinion). Like many other women, what upset me most out of the whole melee was a follow-up piece by R Avraham Gordimer on Cross-Currents, where he expressly wrote that yoetzot halacha should be similarly opposed. He wrote:

"The drafters purposefully did not want to convey an opinion about the propriety of Yoatzot programs and the like, as the RCA has no position on the matter, and many RCA members, this writer included, are not in favor of such programs. This is a critical point of clarification that must be made and publicized.”

I was very pleased to see that cross-currents has published a rebuttal piece by Shoshanna Jaskoll, Rachel Stomel, Tammar Weissman & Anne Gordon, but upset by the response that R Adlerstein included at the end of their piece. My objections are far too long to put in the comments of that article, so I am writing them out here:

1. Most importantly, R Adlerstein et al (he writes that the response is taken from various contributors, so from here on read 'all contributors' for 'R' Adlerstein') appear to be only thinking about the FFB girl raised and educated in a beis yaakov, who needs to be better educated herself about taharat hamishpachah in order to not feel embarrassed about asking a rav. He does not seem to have given a thought to the scores of women who returned to Torah Judaism much later in life. They are not used to the idea of taharat hamishpacha. They are not willing to demean and debase themselves (as they see it) by asking these intimate questions of a man, and are far more likely to see it as embarrassing and demeaning than a woman who has grown up with the idea. When these women say ‘I won’t keep taharat hamishpachah if it means demeaning myself in this way’, is he willing to tell them 'take it or leave', knowing full well that the majority will leave it? Is that preferable to having a yoetzet halacha who is knowledgeable enough to answer their questions, and to pass them on to a higher authority when necessary? 

2. R Adlerstein, in his attempt to prove why women cannot possibly be qualified to answer niddah shaylos, overlooks the fact that women get practical practice in colours several days of the month in their own personal lives. Unlike a man who has to attend a Rav who receives many niddah shaylos, and has to log a huge number of hours of practically viewing colours before he is able to pasken on his own, women become familiar with the true colours of red, brown, black and yellow long before they have heard the term taharat hamishpachah. How can you discount the value of a woman’s practical knowledge in this field? Can we ignore as irrelevant the fact that most women, after a few years of keeping taharat hamishpacha, are able to make their own decisions about most colours without asking anyone, purely through practice and knowing their own bodies?

3. A local rav, 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 answer to the problem of a yoetzet not knowing the woman’s family and community is surely to increase the number of yoetzot so that there is one in every community. But R Adlerstein's objection is far less substantial than it appears to be. Today, each area has only one or two rabbonim who are qualified to answer niddah shaylos (my own town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, which includes thousands of taharat-hamishpacha-keeping English-speaking families, has only 2 rabbis who are qualified to answer niddah shaylos). Those rabbonim cannot possibly know the woman who is asking and her life/family circumstances as well as R Adlerstein seems to think he should. Why is this prefereable to a yoetzet?

4. R Adlerstein claims that a woman should not be the one to tell all the intimate details to the rav, since her husband should be the one to make the call. This is another huge assumption that he makes: that every woman will be happy to tell her husband intimate details about her bowel movements, inner physical feelings, and more in order for him to pass them on to the rabbi. I know that many women, especially in the first few months of marriage, would rather pretend that nothing has happened than have to have such an embarrassing conversation with her new husband. This is not even mentioning cases of domestic abuse where a woman might not dare to tell her husband that they might not be able to be intimate that night, out of fear of the fall-out.

5. Another erroneous assumption that I think both R Adlerstein and the 4 authors of these response made is to assume that every woman who doesn't ask a question will take a machmir line. This is definitely not the case. There are countless women who will ignore a reddish stain and pretend it's not there, rather than have to ask a question that they feel is embarrassing. (See point #1)

6. The specious objection to women 'paskening'. Paskening is another word which is abused and overused today. It should mean only when an answer needs to be given to a new and complex question. Instead, it is used to mean answering any halachic question. Yoatzot absolutely do take their questions to a male rabbi for ruling, and are encouraged to do so whenever they are unsure, but to pretend that yoatzot must not and do not pasken in the latter sense is ridiculous. Women pasken. 

Women pasken for themselves every time that they decide whether or not to take the bedikah cloth to the rav. Women pasken for themselves when after a few times of asking about a particular colour, they gain enough self-confidence to answer their own question with ‘no, this colour is not a problem’. Paskening appears to now be defined as ‘someone else answering a question that I don;t know the answer to’, just like ‘frei’ seems to mean ‘someone who keeps less than I do’. R Adlerstein should stop pretending that there is any problem with women giving a halachic answer to a halachic question that requires some thought. To someone with lesser knowledge it might appear to be an original psak. To the yoetzet, the answer is clear.

7. Most of all, I  am extremely offended by R Adlerstein referring to the 2-year, intensive study program that the yoatzot have to undergo in order to answer questions on this very important field as ‘drips and drabs of rabbinic jargon learned in a sub-standard program’. I can only assume that he deliberately chose this language in order to be offensive, since it serves no other purpose, and am disappointed and disgusted that he cheapened a serious debate on an important topic by making such rude and insulting attacks.

8. Finally, if cross-currents is serious about addressing this issue, they should do Rabbanit Chana Henkin the courtesy of inviting her to pen her own explanation of her own program, instead of throwing out attacks that one might suspect are really aimed at Rabbi Avi Weisz and the cohort at YCT. 


Amanda Bradley
(an orthodox, taharat-hamishpachah keeping, halachah-learning, shaylah-asking Jewish wife)

PS. Update: After re-reading R' Adlerstein's rebuttal a number of times, and reading a number of comments on the Cross-Currents blog itself, I am coming to the conclusion that this is not really about yoetzot halacha at all. This is a proxy war which is really aimed at R' Avi Weiss, the rabbis and movers at YCT, Yeshivat Maharat, and similar semichah-granting programs in Israel. 

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l, was once asked whether it was advisable to allow something because it might lead to something else which is forbidden and 'where does one draw the line?' (I'm sorry that i can;t remember what the issue was that he was being questioned on). R' Weinberg became quite irate and thundered 'What do you mean, where do you draw the line? You choose where you draw the line and that's where you draw the line!' 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How To Make A Tragic Shiva Visit Without Making Things Worse

Every shiva is hard, but some are harder than others.
Recently, I went to the second kind of shiva: the shiva for our friend who was tragically, oh-my-God-shockingly, killed in a cycling accident at the age of 36. He was healthy and happy; he had a wife whom he adored and four small children whom he loved. He was an excellent specialist paediatric ophthalmologist who helped children on a daily basis. He had a long, productive, joyous life ahead of him. Except that now, he didn’t.
It was hard to believe that he was gone. Hard to believe that life could be ended so suddenly and so finally. Harder, far harder to attend his funeral, to pay a shiva visit to his widowed wife, his fatherless children, his siblings, his parents left broken with the loss of their beloved first-born.
These shivas are scary. We are scared to go to visit those mourning the sudden, too-early, tragic loss of a loved one. We are scared that we’ll make it worse. We’re scared that we’ll catch their pain and won’t be able to cope with it. We’re scared that we won’t know what to say. Sometimes these fears overwhelm us, and we decide not to go.
Because sometimes, people really do say things that make it worse. I have sat silently fuming at a shiva where a woman walked in, interrupted the mourners who were in a fine flow of reminiscence about their mother, and sat down to tell them all about the holiday she had just returned from.
I didn’t want to think of anyone making it worse for our friend’s family. I didn’t want anyone to choose not to visit them during the shiva, either, because he deserves to be mourned enmasse. So here is my list of points for How to behave at a shiva:
1. Don’t be scared of silence. If I could write up one golden rule for shiva-visiting, it would be this. Don’t be scared of silence. I don’t have any kind of statistics, but I suspect that 99% of all hurtful comments were made by someone trying to fill a lull. If the mourners are not talking to you, it’s OK to sit quietly until they do. They may be struggling to hold back tears, or remembering a particular memory, or just feeling tired of conversation.
It is the halachah (Jewish law) that when you pay a shiva visit, you may not open the conversation. The mourner has to talk to you first.
2. Don’t try to cheer anyone up. This battles number 1 for my golden rule spot. Too many people think that when visiting someone who is sitting shiva, their job is to cheer them up. Which leads them to tell inappropriate stories about something funny their child said yesterday. So let me tell you: That is not your job. Your job is to be with them in their grief. The man or woman who passed away is special enough that he/she deserves to have people cry for them.
Allow the mourners to cry; allow them to be sad; allow them to mourn. Don’t try to distract them from their grief or cheer them up out of their pain. If you really feel the need to do something, you can silently hand them the tissues while patting their shoulder, or nod sympathetically and murmur how special so-and-so was. But don’t try to cheer them up.

If this article helps anyone to do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (comforting mourners), may that be for the merit of Henri Sueke z"l, Moshe ben Yaakov, who died far too young and whose shivah is far too painful. May we all be comforted for this loss, and spared any future pain 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

My First Siren

This is my third year in Israel. It's my third Yom Hashoah siren. But this year, for the first time, the Yom Hashoah siren affected me in a deep and irrational way. 

Sure, I have learned about the Holocaust. I have cried for it and mourned for it and fumed over it. Please don't think that I am immune to the suffering of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It's just that the Yom Hashoah siren, the timing of it and choice of date and (thank G-d) my distance from the Holocaust, meant that I would pause in my day to think sad thoughts for a moment. As I would stand waiting for the siren to finish, I would work to pull up memories of stories and images of the Holocaust to try to feel a connection. And when the moment finished, I would carry on my day. 

This year was different. This year, I didn't have to try. Because this siren is the first siren after my 'first war'. 

There's a saying that when you make aliyah, you're an olah chadasha until you've had your first war. Last summer's Tzok Eitan was my first war. But it ended more than half a year ago, and (thankfully) Beit Shemesh only experienced about a dozen azakot all summer. Yes, for months afterwards I (like the whole country) would pause for a split-second on hearing certain noises, waiting to be reassured that it's just a police car, or a bus slowing down for the bus stop, or a neighbour vacuuming her home. But I really didn't think it left me much affected, and didn't entirely understand why people said that having experienced my first war had converted me to Israeli.

It turns out that it converted me to more than that. It turned me into a survivor*.

As soon as that piercing wail started at precisely 10am, my adrenaline shot up. My legs heard the siren and began to run to the mamad. My arms heard the siren and began to reach to grab my children to bring them with me. My rational brain had to fight my instincts to keep me standing still, nerves jangling, tears running down my cheeks, till the siren ended.

I did not expect this kind of reaction. I like to think of myself as someone who has control over her responses, but this was way out of my control. Even as I write this, my nerves are still on edge and my heart is still pounding. Because for that minute of standing still, listening to the siren without running to the safe room, I felt vulnerable. Even as I knew that this siren doesn't shout of death approaching, deep inside me it was that wail that I heard. I felt that I was in danger, that my family and my children were in danger. And I thought, this is what the Holocaust was. This feeling of vulnerability. This feeling, as I force myself to stay on my unprotected mirpesset while the siren wails, this is only a small taste of what European Jewry felt for six years of far greater terror. And I am standing out here through choice. I have a safe room to run to. European Jews of the time did not. 

And as I stood for a trembling minute of wailing vulnerability, thinking of shaking mothers in Poland who clutched at their children, and of trembling fathers in Germany who waited for inevitable torture, I thought that maybe my first war did not just make me into an Israeli. It taught me what it is to be a Jew in exile. It made me into a survivor. 

Now, we have an army, and mamadim, and an Iron Dome. We have ways to fight and ways to defend ourselves. But to be a Jew in time of exile is still to feel that visceral fear and vulnerability that I just tasted for a moment during the Yom Hashoah siren. To be a Jew in exile is to carry the post-traumatic, instinctive responses of a survivor. It's to know

"Ain lanu al mi lhishaein elah al avinu shebashamayim
We have no one to rely on, but our Father in heaven."

*I'm not, G-d forbid, comparing my small experience of running to a safe room with the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust. Simply that my experience was enough for me to feel a glimmering of awareness of their greater horror, pain and suffering, and the way that while it may be buried deep, the suffering never ends for them.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

On Losing France

I love Paris. I love France. And I even love the French. And I am sad to lose them.

I know that this is perhaps unusual for an Englishwoman to say. But it is true nonetheless. I grew up going on holiday to France every year. I imbibed the message (true, in my opinion) that France has better food, better wine, better culture and better weather than England. When I was a child, French was the language my parents spoke when they didn't want us to understand, with the result that French was the language that I most wanted to learn.

I have learned French history and French culture, French language and French cooking, French herbs and French geography. At the end of a week in Strasbourg many years ago, I dreamed in French and thought in French.

I consider France to be a country that I belong to. It is mine, by right of love and understanding, along with England and America (Israel, of course, is mine by right of birth, as I am hers). As a historian I can say that France's history is part of my own history.

While I have always loved la France profonde more than gay Paris, Paris is still the heart of the country, and so it is a part of the heart of me. And so please understand that when I say that as Paris falls apart, a part of me does too. I imagine I would feel the same if it were London or New York that was dissolving into chaos. One of my cities can no longer protect her citizens and no longer cares for her Jews. We may not be being expelled as from Anatefka, with our packs on our backs and our children on donkeys, but we are being expelled nonetheless.

It may, in truth, be that France herself would like her Jews to stay, but she has been taken whole as hostage by Islamic terror and is in no position to make demands. She was complicit in her own downfall, but that makes it no better.

In a very small way I start to understand that pain and sadness of the Jews who lost Berlin, the ones who chose to leave when the horror of the Holocaust was still unthinkable. Oh the sadness of watching a country I care about, one that is beautiful and cultured and special to me, slip away. It's a different kind of loss, one that brings to mind this poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

ISIS Isn't The Problem

I haven't done a media survey of any kind of thoroughness, but i have noticed from a few of the varied articles i read on the Charlie Hebdo attack that there is a new tendency to blame it on ISIS. I have no idea whether ISIS really is behind it (I doubt it, it is not their style), but the speed with which people are embracing that conclusion shows that that is what they want to believe. I think that to blame ISIS is another way of covering one's eyes and sticking one's fingers in one's ears so as not to have to face the truth: that fanatical Islam is a global terror organization that is so effective that its members do not need detailed instructions to follow its creed. 

It makes Western minds feel better if they can point to a hierarchical organized terror group 'masterminding' every plot, as though they were a Mid-East version of the boy scouts earning their badges. Because if they are part of an organization, then the West has an army that they are pitted against. There is a target, we can 'get' their Bin Laden or Hussein or Nasrallah and that will solve the problem. We just need to wipe out ISIS, or Al Qaeda, and then the problem has been solved. But to acknowledge the truth means to accept that we are facing an enemy who lives in every major capital city in the world, and who looks exactly like our colleagues at work, or companions on the bus, our accountants and our street cleaners and our taxi drivers, and who wants to kill us. You. Me. Indeed, they often are our street cleaners and bus drivers. It means realizing that we are facing an enemy that wears no uniform to help us identify it. 

It means acknowledging that we are facing a multi-tentacled self-reproducing organism, rather than a top-down leader-directed organization. If you cut off the head of the latter, it will die. If you cut off the head of the former, you discover that now you are holding a second monster. 

I would like to see the Western media articulate that terrorism is a product of fanatical Islam. It is not a justifiable tool of guerrilla militias with a righteous grievance which will be ended when the grievance is fixed. It is not the product of a sick-minded charismatic leader who grooms vulnerable youths, which will be ended when the leader is killed. It is not the sad consequence of a mentally unstable, twisted mind which can be cured by interventions and medication. It is the clear-headed, cold-blooded, self-motivated result of a bloodthirsty and death-loving ideology, and it will continue to seed itself in new carriers. It can't be stopped by the creation of a Palestinian state, by psychiatric interventions, or by cutting off its head. 

The monster that the West is facing is not going to go away because the West is hiding under the covers. Time for Western media to uncover its eyes and unblock its ears. This monster is real. It won't go away when you turn on the light, but you can't fight it in the dark.