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!' 


  1. The whole idea of preferring an intermediary (the husband) to a halachic question seems odd to me. It's just asking for added confusion or miscommunication, which can change or lose potentially important details.


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