NEW YORK – Cheers rose up from family and friends as each of the five Orthodox women - the first in the United States to complete formal training certifying them to advise other women on the laws of family purity, a role traditionally played by rabbis - stepped up to accept her diploma Sunday at the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
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The women have completed a two year course run by Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based women’s yeshiva, training them to advise others on all aspects of observing the laws of taharat hamispacha. It is a role usually played by rabbis, but women today are increasingly uncomfortable turning to men to ask intimate questions about their menstrual periods, immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) and timing of sex with their husbands, say those involved with the program.
In addition to taking calls from women with questions, the Jewish law counselors - known as yoetzot halakha - give lectures and classes to synagogues and Jewish community groups. Close to 250,000 callers have phoned a toll-free hotline in Israel (accessible by a toll-free U.S. number as well) to ask questions, said Atara Eis, program director of the U.S. Yoatzot Halakha Fellows Program of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center, as it is formally known.
Nishmat, which was founded and continues to be run by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, began training yoetzot halakha at the Jerusalem campus in 1997 and has since graduated 80 women - 85 counting the new American graduates. They work in Israel, England and the United States.
The five new graduates studied together three times a week over two years, in the beit midrash at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J. Six more women have just begun the program, which costs $250,000 a year to run and gives each student a $7,500 stipend, said Nishmat staff.
The graduation was heralded by Henkin and others as a “landmark.”
But controversy over maharats, the female Orthodox clergy ordained last June by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Maharat, has forced the yoatzot into a defensive posture. Comments on news articles in a handful of newspapers catering to Orthodox communities about the yoatzot graduation reflected the debate. In the online publication Voz Is Neis [What’s the News?], “Reb Yid” commented that “For some people this is a good thing, for obvious reasons. For others, it's simply a way to sneak female clergy into Orthodoxy through the back door.” Someone signing his name as Mark Levin wrote, “What a very slippery slope we have here.” Someone else signing his or her name as “Sane,” wrote “For the past 3,000 years, the Rabbi was good enough. What has changed?”
Henkin, at the graduation, appeared to want to distance herself from dissension over maharats.
“[The yoetzot] have established landmarks while avoiding controversy," she said. "Through boldness of vision and softness of tone yoetzot are the friendly face of halakha for tens of thousands of women.”
“Of course” there is defensiveness, “because people equate things that are not equal,” said Nechama Price, a newly graduated yoetzet and an instructor in Judaic studies and Bible at YU’s Stern College for Women. “As a yoetzet I have no interest in becoming clergy. I only want to work with rabbis, not replace them, and it’s important for people to know that.”
Henkin’s approach is to build careful consensus with the Orthodox establishment both here and in Israel, which is in implicit contrast to Rabbi Avi Weiss’ near-unilateral decision to give the title "rabba” to his first female ordinee, Sara Hurwitz. Hurwitz now serves as dean of Yeshivat Maharat, named for the acronym given to its graduates after Weiss faced enormous pressure not to call his ordinees the female version of rabbi.
“We purposely chose an understated title in order to demonstrate that we are not seeking to replace rabbis, that we are working collegially with rabbis and consult with rabbis," Henkin said in an interview. "We’re not looking to make statements, we are looking to strengthen observance of halakha and better people’s lives."
In addition to studying the relevant Jewish texts and laws relating to a woman’s menstrual cycle and intimate relations between husbands and wives, yoetzet halakha students also spend time learning about psychology, biology and physiology, along with counseling skills.
“We really try to teach the women a pastoral side, how to talk to women, how to understand the kinds of questions that need to be asked, how to really listen what is behind the question a woman is asking and how to coax her to give the relevant information,” said Eis, who graduated from Nishmat’s Jerusalem training program in 2007 and worked for several years as a yoetzet in Manhattan and in Lower Merion, PA, before recently moving to Efrat, in Israel.
Each of the five graduates of the new American yoetzet training program has already been hired.
Lisa Septimus has been hired as yoetzet halakha of the Five Towns of Long Island, a heavily modern Orthodox area, near the yeshiva high school where she has been a Judaic Studies teacher for a dozen years. Septimus, who is also a rabbi’s wife and the mother of four young children, told Haaretz, “As a rebbetzin, from time to time women would turn to me with questions related to the observance of Jewish family law. I’d seen the small impact I’d been able to have just being a female voice or listener. I imagined how much greater the impact would be if I were more learned, more qualified, in this area.”
And “as much as I was helpful in my community many others didn’t turn to me probably because they didn’t know they could,” Septimus said. The publicity around her graduation and appointment alone has led to more calls with questions and invitations to lecture, she said. “Being trained as a yoetzet has allowed me to address more complex issues, helped my confidence so that I don’t just repeat the law to women but teach them as I impart the law, and helped make it into a greater learning experience for both of us.”
Questions put to yoetzot range from the fairly routine, as when a woman is preparing to immerse in the mikveh and only then realizes that she can’t take off her gel manicure with nail polish remover (yoetzot say they get this one often) or women calling to say they are unsure if they are in niddah, the ritual state prohibiting sexual interaction between husband and wife.
Others are more complicated. One yoetzet had a woman ask if she could immerse in a mikveh with permanent medical devices, an insulin pump and blood sugar meter, attached. Another caller had a mole removed and was required to wear a bandage that could get wet but not be removed, for an extended period. Usually having something that impedes the mikveh’s water from touching any part of the body makes immersion prohibited. But the yoetzet, hoping to find a way for this woman to be able resume having sex with her husband before the bandage was removed, consulted with rabbis. One found a halakhic opinion, written by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that made it possible for the woman to immerse.
Then there are issues relating to breast cancer. “Not everyone wishes to go to her rabbi and explain the details of reconstructive surgery,” said Henkin.
While each of the new graduates has found part-time employment as a Jewish law counselor, “There are probably some communities that have shied away from hiring them. That’s to be expected,” said Rabbi Kenneth Auman, dean of the U.S. program. “We’re not confrontational, not trying to ram this down anyone’s throat. It will probably spread slowly. When people see that it’s to their benefit they’ll be interested in pursuing it further. We’re not interested in creating any revolutions. That’s for sure.”