Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Form, Subtance, and Feminism

A couple of weeks ago The Five Towns Jewish Times reported on the successful implementation of a Yoetzet Halacha program in several synagogues in the New York area.

Yoatzot are women specially trained in matters dealing with Taharas HaMishpacha. These are the religious laws dealing with sexual matters between husband and wife. These laws are among the most important ones in Judaism. They often require Shailos to be asked of a Rabbi or a Posek. Understandably such questions can be embarrassing to a woman asking them to an Orthodox man.

However, throughout history Jews committed to following Halacha ‘bit the bullet’ and asked those questions. Sometimes a woman might ask the Rabbi’s wife and she would be able to answer ‘often asked’ non specific questions. She would relay the more difficult ones to her husband.

In our day many communities still do that. But there are many communities that do not. Many Shailos simply do not get asked out of embarrassment. Potential Baalei Teshuva might be ‘scared off’ upon finding out that these kinds of problems might require them to ask intimate Shailos to a Rabbi.

For these sincere Jews asking a Yoetzet is a comfortable way to deal with these issues. In our day when the Shtet’l mentality no longer exists and we are no longer confined to a homogeneous community, older historical customs are not as easily followed. Orthodox Judaism is a much bigger tent now and is no longer located in a singular environment. There are modern cosmopolitan women who want to observe Halacha in a framework of general society. They want to follow Halacha but might be too embarrassed to ask Shailos in traditional ways.

That’s where the Yoetzet comes in. A woman with a sensitive personal issue can now go to another woman who is knowledgeable in these laws and ask her questions that she is trained to answer. She has learned the pertinent Halachos, has been tested, and passed. She is at least as fully capable of dealing with common Shailos as the rabbi's wife of old was. She is just more formally trained. And just like the rabbi’s wife of the past if a Shaila requires a rabbinic Psak, she will refer to - or ask a Rav or Posek.

To me this is a no brainer. And yet prominent Charedi rabbis like Rabbi Yaakov Feitman are opposed to it. The reasons given however fail to impress me. In fact they are completely unsatisfactory in light of the obvious benefits of such programs.

Rabbi Feitman’s objections are based on the importance Judaism puts on form. He says that such programs tamper with the ‘form’ of the Halachic process and that the innovation of Yoatzot enters the ‘precincts of the Reform’.

This is an unfair comparison. Reform tampering with ‘form’ was for the purpose of destroying the substance of Mitzvah observance. The purpose and result of Yoatzot is better observance by more observers.

Rabbi Feitman claims that Gedolei Yisrael have always made great sacrifices for ‘form’ - as much as they did for the substance. Perhaps that’s true. But one cannot make a blanket statement like that because at times form was sacrificed for the greater good of substance.

That’s why the Beis Yaakov school system for girls education was created. It was supported by the very same Gedolim of the past that Rabbi Feitman says fought innovation in form. Not all the Gedolim of that era supported it either. But who can now question the legitimacy and success of that change?

Rabbi Feitman goes on to make one of the most unbelievable statements I’ve have ever heard any Rav make:

The institution of a chavrusah, learning at a shtender, the format of a shiur are all time-honored and hallowed.

I’m not exactly sure how this ‘institution’ is being challenged. But to say that there is any sanctity to a shtender is tantamount to saying there is sanctity to a black hat!

Then he makes the most outrageous comparison of his entire article:

An assault upon the process has always been treated as seriously as an attack upon the Torah itself. For instance, the Netziv closed the great Yeshiva of Volozhin rather than introduce government-mandated innovations.

How he can compare the Netziv’s choice to shut down his Yeshiva with the Yoatzot program? The Netziv was being forced by an anti-Semitic Czarist government at the instigation of a Reform Jew to install a secular studies program – designed to wean religious Jews away from observant Judaism. The Yoatzot program is trying to do the exact opposite!

There is however an area that has a more legitimate basis for protest. It is a problem that Rabbi Hershel Shachter has addressed in the past- that of Tznius. Rabbi Schachter has pointed out that we - as a people - are to seek privacy whenever possible and shun the public square.

That is true for both men and women. It’s just that men are required by Halacha to do certain things publicly – and we therefore have no choice. Women have no such mandate. and ought to choose privacy of the home rather than the public square of Yoatzot. Rabbi Feitman alludes to this historically:

In ancient times, women were in fact very private people, rarely venturing forth into any kind of public venue.

That is true. But it is not enough of a reason to be opposed to this program since the good far outweighs this consideration. Sometimes past is not prologue. When new situations arise we need to meet the challenge and not retreat from seeking new solutions that benefit us all. The changes in religious society in the 21st century no longer justify the Tznius argument. Women no longer stay in the home. The old European model has been obliterated. The Charedi Kollel system could not exist if that model were the standard.

Rabbi Feitman uses this fact to argue that women today are far more sophisticated and cosmopolitan and that therefore a claim of embarrassment does not ring true.

I find this to be far from compelling. That a religious woman can be comfortable in the environment of a modern world does not mean she will feel comfortable speaking with an Orthodox man about matters of sexual intimacy.

Rabbi Feitman then goes right to what I believe is his real issue:

One cannot help but detect an influence of modern feminism and societal pressure rather than a true problem in the comfort level of 21st-century Jewish women.

I have had the same thought about other innovations such as Women’s Tefilah Groups or Rabbinic Interns. I can see feminist influences there. But Yoatzot are completely different. They are about wider and better Mitzvah observance, not about feminism.


I have been made aware of a second letter on this issue by Rabbi Feitman sent to Ezzie which he posted on his blog, SerandEz. I link to it here. I did not however find it all satisfying as an answer to the points I have raised. Instead I found it to be more of the same.