Sunday, March 18, 2018

Broadening the Observance of Family Purity Laws

Women denied! (JBN)
There is yet another issue plaguing the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (hereafter referred to as the Rabbanut). They are refusing to allow women to take an exam on Hilchos Niddah (commonly referred to as Family Purity Laws). This would certify them as experts on those laws. Laws which they have studied meticulously. If this exam exists and is anything like the one they give for Semicha (rabbinic ordination)  -  it would be a rigorous one and  not easily passed.  At present  I do not know if they even have such a test. I would imagine that these laws are covered by the test given to those seeking Semicha.

Ynet reports that the women who have been denied that option are threatening to go the Israel's High Court. I hope it doesn't come to that. I hate to see the secular courts ruling on religious matters. That should be the sole province of the rabbis. That said - in this case, I side with these women.

I understand the fear the Rabbanut might have in allowing women to take these exams. They may see it as a slippery slope – a gateway to eventual demands for Semicha (rabbinic ordination). Something that virtually all  Orthodox Poskim from across the spectrum of mainstream Orthodoxy forbid. The reasons for that are beyond the scope of this post. The point here is that whether one agrees with them or not, women will never be accepted as rabbis by mainstream Orthodox institutions. No matter whether they identify as Charedi (e.g. the Agudah) or Modern Orthodox (e.g. the OU and the RCA).

If they are seeking what I think they are, then they are only seeking to broaden the recognition of Yoatzot. Yoatzot are women that have studied Hilchos Niddah at Nishmat under the guidance of Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin. He has certified them to advise women who have Shailos (questions) about Hilchos Niddah.(Family Purity Laws).  They function strictly in an advisory capacity and not as Poskim. Difficult Shailos are forwarded to Poskim that are experts on these matters.

Women advising women on matters of intimacy in Halacha is not unprecedented. Historically it was not uncommon for the wives of Poskim to know many of the rulings of their husbands and were the advisers of first resort. They often answered with complete confidence in the surety of their response. Yoatzot Halacha do the same thing. Only with one big advantage. They have spent time studying Hilchos Niddah and have been thoroughly tested. They are certified to give expert advice but not to Paskin difficult Shailos – which are handed off to Poskim.

I see only pluses here. I realize that the advent of this phenomenon is a result of feminism. But I am not an opponent of feminism per se. I am only opposed to it when it contradicts Judaism. In this case it compliments it. Feminism has fostered a climate in Orthodoxy where women can study Torah to their hearts content. That can be put to good use. The doors have been opened for more people than ever adhering to Hilchos Niddah.

Let’s face it. The idea of women asking men – even rabbis (perhaps especially rabbis) - questions dealing with their menstrual cycles, is at best an uncomfortable proposition. It is much easier for a woman to ask another woman. I don’t see how anyone can dispute that. It is natural to be embarrassed to approach a man with Shaila about such an intimate part of her life.

That is why the wives of these rabbis were often contacted first. Sometimes a husband would end up asking the Shaila. Sometimes a couple would decide be strict rather than ask an embarrassing Shaila Which may not be the best approach because of fertility issues. Any way you look at it, there is downside to not having Halachicly educated women available to deal with these questions. 

There is no question in my mind that with respect to Orthodoxy, the advent of Yoatzot is one of the best things to come out of feminism. It has advanced the cause of Halachic observance tremendously.

Which brings me back to the Rabbanut. I understand their reservations. They are the same reservations many Charedi Poskim have - who have not recognized Yoatzot. Whether they reject it because it is sourced in feminism or because they see it as a gateway to becoming rabbis their opposition is misplaced. The good far and away outweighs the bad. That in my view, cannot be said about women becoming rabbis 

Orthodoxy is about knowing where to draw lines. And sticking to those lines. The Rabbanut should not oppose women from becoming certified to advise women on Hilchos Niddah. The collateral damage of not allowing them to do that is that there will be more violations of it without them. Is their refusal to certify women in Hilchos Niddah  worth that price? Which they will no doubt surely pay? I don’t think so.