Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Feminism, Yoatzot, and Observing Halacha

Rav Aharon Feldman
Once again, I am dismayed at Rav Aharon Feldman’s comments. This time it what he has said about Yoatzot Halacha. I cannot think of a more counterproductive opinion than this one. The adverse effect of this view will surely increase sin among the Jewish people. I fully agree with what Rabbi Natan Slifkin said about that despite the justifiable bias he might have against Rav Feldman - for endorsing the ban on his books back in 2004.

He does not quite say that the concept of Yoatzot is Halachicly forbidden. But calling it a grievous error is not that much better.

Yoatzot are not Poskim. They are women that have studied the laws of Taharas Mishpacha (laws of personal intimacy between husband and wife) and have been certified as knowledgeable advisers to women that have these kinds of questions. They do not attempt to resolve the complex issues - that most rabbis do not even resolve. They take those issues to the same kind of Poskim those rabbis do.

Rav Feldman first notes the argument made in favor of the Yoatzot program by its initiators.Which is that there is indeed a need for women educated in these matters for the simple reason that many Shailos (Halachic questions) do not get asked. There are many observant  women – especially in Modern Orthodoxy that are embarrassed to ask a Rav a question about personal intimacy issues. Which leads to making bad decisions that are counter to Halacha. Either in being Mekil (permitting the severely forbidden) or being Machmir (forbidding the permitted). Neither of which is appropriate. 

For those that might think that being Machmir is not so bad - think again. Refraining from intimacy when it is Halachicly permitted  may involve fertility and other Halachic issues. It should not be a fallback position unless there is absolutely no one to ask a Shaila to.  

So what is Rav Feldman’s problem? How can anyone say that an innovation that increases Halachic observance among us is anything but a great idea?

For one thing he says the roots of this program are in Orthodox Jewish Feminism. A movement whose goal is full equality of the sexes in religious matters. A goal based on the false premise that in our day women are excluded from many religious practices because of an ancient form of misogyny extant during the Talmudic era.

I agree that a full egalitarian version of feminism with respect to Judaism is wrong. And have said so many times. But it is not the all or nothing – black or white enterprise that the Charedi world loves to box things into. Feminism has in fact benefited even the most right wing segments of the Charedi world. I would even go so far as to say that without it, we could not have the Kollel system we have today. 

It is feminism that has enabled women to leave the confines of their kitchen and get jobs with respectable earnings. Feminism has opened up the job market for women to unprecedented levels. Which enables them to provide enough of an income to support their ever growing families. Women supporting the families while husbands stay in Kollel thus producing no income - may not be the best outcome from a societal perspective. The point here, though, is that not everything about feminism is automatically bad even from their perspective.

If something good comes out of a movement one does not generally approve of, it should not be automatically rejected because of its source. It is feminism that influenced women to want to study Torah at a higher level than they had been able to in the past. That was remedied by Rav Soloveitchik when gave the first Shiur in Gemarah to women at YU’s Stern College for Women. Since then many institutions have opened up that have given women the opportunity to do that. And that eventually gave rise to the Yoetzet program. 

While the motivation in some cases might in part be sourced in a form of egalitarianism, that in and of itself is not so bad if put to good use. Which I firmly is the case here. 

Will it further the cause of Orthodox Jewish feminism into areas that it should not go? Possibly. But I don’t really think abolishing the program will change anything. Orthodox Jewish feminists that want to cross certain lines will do so anyway regardless of what happens to the Yoatzot program. In fact abolishing it will probably have the opposite effect – motivating that movement to fight even harder to cross those lines. 

So I have to ask Rav Feldman, what is the better outcome, furthering the Yoatzot program where Taharas HaMishpacha will be more fully observed? Or canceling the program for mostly symbolic reasons which will end up going back to a time where Shailos weren’t asked at all?  I know what my answer would be.

Rav Feldman’s other argument is that women cannot become as learned as men because they are not steeped in learning the way men have been throughout their educational lives. Merely studying the Shulchan Aruch well - does not provide the broad Torah based knowledge required of Poskim who have been studying Torah with depth and breadth for many years prior to studying the Shulchan Aruch and getting Semicha (ordained). Yoatzot Halacha do not do that. They are not required to do it to become Yoatzot. So - says Rav Feldman - even if they do ask the difficult questions to a Posek, they might not even realize which questions are considered difficult because of their lack of a broader base of knowledge.

I can understand the logic on an ideological level. But as a practical matter, the hard cold fact is that  many male rabbis don’t have that kind of broad based knowledge either. In both cases, however their education is generally enough to know when to ask a question. It might even be argued that women are even more capable then male rabbis in this regard. They know the resistance they will get and they tend to study harder. 

What does Rav Feldman do about those women that are too embarrassed to ask these kinds of Shailos to a male Posek? He answers that there are ways around it. Like drop boxes where woman can leave notes with questions on them. Or going to the Posek’s wife and having her transmit the question to him. Or using a telephone to ask a Shaila without identifying oneself. I suppose this is a way around being embarrassed. But it is clearly not the best way to get a direct answer to commonly asked questions. Or even difficult ones .

Rav Feldman also argues that if women go to male gynecologists – sometimes even preferring them, why would they feel embarrassment going to a male Posek? 

I should think that answer is obvious. A male doctor is not a religious leader. He is a medical professional trained specifically to deal with women’s health issues. It is also likely they do not see their gynecologists in social settings. It is clearly more embarrassing asking question involving marital intimacy to a religious leader that one sees on a regular basis - often socially. 

After looking at both arguments made by Rabbi Feldman and comparing them to the benefits of a Yoatzot program, I don’t see how anyone could in good conscience be opposed to it.