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Of Yoatzot and Shtenders

Some have argued that the advent of Yoatzot is a slippery slope towards the ordination of female rabbis.
woman with shtender

One of the first topics I wrote about on this blog back in late 2005 was the innovation of Yoatzot Halacha. These are women who study the Halachos of Taharas HaMishpacha – the laws of family purity and after rigorous examination are given the title of Yoetzet. (Yoatzot if the plural of that word.) As such these women become qualified to answer common questions dealing with Taharas HaMishpacha.  The more difficult questions are referred to Poskim.

The opposition to these newly created positions for women was strong and swift among the right wing. Yoatzot were rejected out of a fear that these women were replacing Poskim. And that such innovations were rooted in a form of radical feminism that wanted to do away with as many differences between men and women as possible – pushing that envelope well beyond all traditional boundaries set by millennia long traditions (often referred to as Mesorah.)

Rabbi Yaakov Feitman explained why the right wing is so opposed to them in a 2009 article in the Five Towns Jewish Times (republished in Matzav).  Some of it is based on misunderstanding of what the function of Yoatzot actaully is. He called them Female Poskim. They are not female Poskim. It is part of their training that they go to Poskim with the more difficult Shailos.

But his objections do not amount to anything of great substance. He seems to compare the importance of keeping the status quo against this innovation with the status quo of using a Shtender (lecturn) for Torah study. Here is how he puts it:

What is not as generally well known is that Torah has a form, as well. The gestalt of Torah is as much part and parcel of Mattan Torah as its substance. Gedolei Yisrael through the ages were moser nefesh for the form as much as for the substance. The institution of a chavrusah, learning at a shtender, the format of a shiur are all time-honored and hallowed. An assault upon the process has always been treated as seriously as an attack upon the Torah itself.

Perhaps Rabbi Feitman didn’t know that no less a Posek than R’ Moshe Feinstein did not approve of using a Shtender for Torah study. He preferred a table – believing that the use of a Shtender while seated makes one too ‘laid back’ (for lack of a better term) and thereby lessening the Ameilus (intensity) required for proper Torah study.  He felt that one is far more engaged in the learning process when the Gemarah is on a table rather than on a Shtender. One can argue the point. But one cannot claim as does Rabbi Feitman that opposition to the use of a Shtender is an assualt on the process which is seen as an attack on the Torah itself.

Some have argued that the advent of Yoatzot is a slippery slope towards the ordination of female rabbis. I disagree. I am opposed to the innovation of female rabbis for reasons I have stated elsewhere – which are beyond the scope of this post. But a Yoetzet is not a rabbi. She is an adviser. They have been around for nearly a decade and not one of them to the best of my knowledge has gone that route.

Others maintain that the source motivation is feminist. Those that seek to be Yoatzot or promote them are more interested pushing a feminist agenda than they are in serving Judaism. I have met one Yoetzet and can testify as to her sincerety. She is not a feminist. Her purpose in studying these laws is to further the observance of family purity laws. Many of which are biblically based and subject to the heavenly death penalty of Kares!  I have also spoken to others who have met Yoatzot and have been equally impressed at the sincerity and religiosity of these women.

I believe that opposition by the right is still strong. The old accusations about motivations and agendas are still believed by them and I do not recall seeing any moderation by them on this issue. Which is quite sad. As I said in my post of about 8 years ago… even if there were some ‘impure’ motivation to this innovation, the benefits far outweigh any perceived problems they may have – imagined or real.

What about giving these learned women a title? Is that appropriate?

Why would anyone have a problem with that? Shouldn’t those who study Torah and achieve a level of expertise in a given field be given a title that recognizes it?  More importantly why not have a standardized level of competence that an earned title represents.

One of the arguments raised against Yoatzot is that they do not add anything to observance of family purity laws. The advanatge that a woman with shailos of a personal nature would feel more comfortable speaking to a woman than a man – was already taken care of by the Rebbetzin – who was the wife of a Posek. These Rebbetzins were already advising women with embarrassing Shailos and forwarding difficult Shailos to their husbands.

While it is true that this was – and probably still  is going on, these Rebbetzins had no formal or  standardized education on this subject. It was all based on the personal experience of being married to a Posek. That there now exists women who have studied the material directly and know it well… is an improvement on that.

What about the idea that changing tradition that have been in existence for milleina is a bad idea? I don’t buy that as an absolute. And neither do some of the greatest Poskim in Jewish history.  When the time was right they supported change even in the face of much right wing opposition.

This is in fact what happened in Europe in the early 20th century when Sara Shenierer founded the Beis Yaakov schools.  The rabbinic objections were strong and went along the following lines: Women got along fine for 3000 years being religiously educated in their homes by their mothers without a Beis Yaakov.  Now suddenly they need a formal school?! And yet no less a Posek than the Chofetz Chaim supported this new and somewhat radical innovation. He felt the times required it. The same is true for Yoatzot. The advent of Yoatzot is a response to a current need. If they are feminists, so too was Sara Sheneirer.

Which is why I am pleased to see an article in the 5 Towns Jewish Times reporting that the rabbinate of that community enthusiastically endorses Lisa Septimus as its official Yoetzet. Rabbi Kenneth Hain who is quoted in the article said:

“I firmly believe that the addition of Rebbetzan Septimus as a Yoetzet Halakhah will be a wonderful asset to enhance observance and understanding of one of the most sacred areas of Jewish life.  I heartily welcome this important development in the Five Towns Community.”

Rabbi Heshie Billet another rabbi in 5 Towns added:

“The Yoetzet is not intended to replace the halachic and personal relationship between local rabbanim and rebbetzens and their congregants on this very sensitive area of religious life. Rather, it is our expectation that the Yoetzet will support that relationship, complement it, and enhance the observance of taharat-ha-mishpachah in our community.”

Ken Yirbu! I wonder whether Rabbi Feitman who is a member of this community is on board with this. Did he change his mind? I certainy hope so.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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