Friday, January 8, 2010

Yoatzot Halachah: Good for the Jews?

A few months back, Rabbi Ya’akov Neuberger spoke to the staff of Kol Hamevaser, YU's Jewish studies student journal (see page 12 here). When asked about his feelings on yoatzot halachah, he said:
I think that introducing these programs in our community is unwise. In terms of our community, having yo’atsot hilchatiyyot will serve us poorly in the future because it will create an unnecessary distance between the rav and the women in the community. Having such yo’atsot will eventually communicate that rabbanim do not want to be involved in the concerns of their female congregants and even that they ideally should not be involved in women’s issues and in piskei Halakhah for women.
We have to communicate that rabbanim are and want to be very involved in the full needs of the community, including women’s issues. Obviously, rabbanim have to create venues and formats where if a woman is uncomfortable discussing something directly with the rav, she can find a comfortable way of doing so. But we should not be setting up a system which would create any sense of distance between the rav and his female congregants.
In addition, much of the involvement that a rav has in his congregants’ lives comes through the questions that people raise with him. If a rav will not have access to these women’s she’eilos, he is not going to be aware of any shalom bayis issues in a family or of family pressures, ambitions, and aspirations. Having yo’atsot, then, will create a distance not only between the rav and individual woman, but between the rav and the entire family and its needs.
That is why I believe having yo’atsot is serving us poorly, and if they are successful, it will take us in an undesirable direction.
Clearly, Rav Neuberger makes an important point. Taking an area of halachah out of the hands of the community rabbi,and placing it into the hands of a third party can truly tie a rabbi’s hands. It would be like telling a general practitioner, “You know what, you handle every aspect of your patient’s health, except reproductive issues. (Actually, that’s pretty much what the health industry does. How can you treat someone holistically if you’re excluded from an integral aspect of their overall health?) The same is true for a rabbi. Reproductive and niddah shailot are, for many families, core issues that they struggle with in their lives. It can be almost a monthly struggle – the bedikot, the questions, and the emotional and spiritual tension that these challenges bring. A rabbi aware of these issues and involved with them, not only can give guidance on the specific questions, but can also serve as an anchor for the families in their struggle, offering reassurance and support. And, in the happy cases where the struggles lead to the birth of a child, the rabbi has been a critical element in the process, and can use that joy to springboard the family to even greater spiritual growth.
When you introduce a yoetzet to the community, the rabbi finds himself excluded from this entire halachic branch of family life, making his overall job of ministering to the family’s needs that much more difficult. So a yoetzet – as great as she may be – does raise issues for a community rabbi.
But we also need to look at the facts on the ground. The yoetzet program has been an undeniable success, with yoaztot halachah addressing thousands and thousands of questions in the communities in which they serve. Clearly, women are turning to the yoatzot and not to their rabbi for their reproductive questions. The question is why.
I think this trend has less to do with the yaotzot than it does the changing nature of the Jewish community and the modern rabbinate.
Years ago, the community viewed its rabbis as figureheads: austere, serious and formal - symbols of respect and authority. That posture brings with it obvious benefits. Rav Neuberger is a Talmid Chacham of the first degree; his expertise in the laws of Niddah make his advise and council sought-after across the world. He truly serves as the rav for Rabbanim in this and other areas. But he represents the type of Rav who takes a more formal, distinguished approach. While the rabbinate he describes follows a time-honored rabbinic model, rabbinic roles have shifted fundamentally in recent years.
When I interviewed for my former position at the Young Israel of Oak Park, among the questions my shul asked me during my interview process was whether I would participate in a shul canoe trip and other similar events. I said that I’d be happy to participate in canoe trips and similar events, and indeed I did. I was a fixture at many communal social programs from the canoe trip to the shul barbecues to the motzei Shabbat bowling program. I tried to be – and I think rightfully so – accessible and open, but even more importantly, friendly not only to the men of the shul, but also to the women and children. I wanted them to feel comfortable with me in social situations, and not be distant, aloof or intimidating.
These efforts bore fruit. They brought me into people’s homes, spurred wonderful relationships and critical conversations. But let’s be honest: it’s hard to speak to someone as a friend when you know that last week they checked your underwear to determine if your vaginal emission was bloody or not. You can’t have it both ways: if you want to be the rabbi who every woman feels comfortable sending her bedikot to, then you can’t be the same person who will strike up a conversation during a shul hike. And if that relationship is more important, then it’s not reasonable for a rabbi to wonder why women don’t feel comfortable submitting their bedikah cloths for inspection. Most women don’t have a close personal relationship with their gynecologists; they don’t schmooze with them at kiddush on Shabbat, and they don’t listen to them speak from the pulpit every week.
That’s why yoatzot have been such a strong success in the Modern Orthodox community. In becoming great communal rabbis, we have inadvertently shut those same women off from access to us as advisers in the laws of family purity. Sure, we’re willing to answer any question. We are able to draw a firm line between a bedikah cloth and a ball game and not feel awkward. But is it really reasonable to expect most women to be able to make that same clean break, and not think about her underwear when the rabbi walks up to greet her in the grocery store?
You cannot have it both ways. The austere and distant rav has the benefit of a level of authority and distance sometimes critical to his position, nowhere more than in hilchot Niddah. But the close, intimate congregational rabbi can bring spirituality to his congregants in ways that the rav never could.
It's not a question of which "type" of rabbi is better. Both play necessary, critical roles in Jewish life today. Some congregants don't want the rabbi to be their friend. Some want their rav (I think of the two words, rav and rabbi as representing different archetypes) to give shiurim, pasken shailot, and represent the honor and glory of the Torah. But others would find that rabbi unapproachable, and would shy away from Judaism due to a sense of alienation and distance.
If the price for that closeness to our community is the ability to be involved in every question, that’s a price we must be willing to pay. And we must acknowledge that with the new, casual familiarity so common in the rabbinate, our women need other outlets to answer their halachic questions.
Yoatzot halachah fill that need perfectly.