Making a Case for Yoetzet Halacha
by Heshy Fried, March 27, 2009
While spending shabbos in Washington Heights several weeks ago, the residents were in the process of trying to find a new Rabbi for the shul. On Friday night the shul organized an Oneg Shabbat question and answer session with the prospective Rabbi, it wasn't interesting until the topic of women's participation in communal and synagogue life came up. The silence and snickers and small conversations between the questions could be felt by everyone. The prospective Rabbi was not really for the hiring a Yoetzet Halacha, and I myself had no idea what that was.
A Yoetzet Halacha is a full time women's halachic advisor, someone to advise women in questions and issues that they would otherwise feel uncomfortable discussing with a male Rabbi. Upon learning what exactly a Yoetzet Halacha was, I immediately wondered why this prospective rabbi would appear flustered or even against the option of helping women talk about their issues in a more comfortable environment. There isn't much literature on the subject; I did find one article and a response letter both in the Five Towns Jewish Times.
The initial article, titled Rave Reviews for Manhattan Yoatzot Halacha Program, is basically explaining which congregations in the New York had hired these women's halachic advisors and how the Rabbis were thrilled to have them along. I should note that according to Nishmat (which is one of the only programs I could find that certifies Yoetzet Halachot) it is quite hard to get certified and according to some friends that attended their other women's study programs they are very "frum."
The response letter, titled We Do Not Need Yoatzot Halacha, was a different story. Written by Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, it is an angry argument against such a wonderful program which he says was "conceived out of concern and kindness" which he believes is "an insidious incursion into our time-honored mesorah." Which is always and in this case as well, followed by some sort of claim that anything that allows women to leave the kitchen for the study hall to be evil and breaking down our morals.
Feitman goes on to make what I could only call a fool of himself with the following paragraph:
"Here is an irony to the "creation" (their word) of a yoetzet at this stage of Jewish history. In ancient times, women were in fact very private people, rarely venturing forth into any kind of public venue. Many halachos, in areas such as tzedakah, inheritance, and business law took this fact into consideration. Yet, women were comfortable asking a she'eilah of their rav or sending their husbands. Today, when women are full members of every area of commerce and society, when they travel the world and are elected to the highest positions in government, it seems a bit incongruous to belatedly claim discomfort with a man. A rav is as much a professional as a physician or attorney, and conducts himself with discretion and consideration. 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."
My first reaction was that Rabbi Feitman is full of shit. He fails to note that many women new to orthodoxy may not feel comfortable talking about such personal issues as Taharat Mishpacha (family purity) with a man she hardly knows. Besides, talking to a Rabbi whom you may see every week can make things a bit awkward. Just because women feel comfortable with society doesn't mean they talk about sexual issues with everyone they meet. Who is Feitman fooling?
I would like to ask Rabbi Feitman if he ever thought about the women who may now ask questions that they never felt comfortable asking before, allowing them to observe the laws on a better level. I would also like to now, how the ultraorthodox community can tell women to be so modest their whole lives and once they get married to just feel comfortable talking about these detailed issues with a stranger?