On Monday evening, July 20, the Teaneck Yoetzet Halacha Initiative will present a series of dramatic monologues written by women from our community addressing the joys and challenges that Jewish women may experience at various stages in their lives. These include halachic infertility and the yearning for a child, intimacy issues and sexual education, and two very different perspectives on the mikvah and taharat hamishpacha (family purity laws). In an interview, Teaneck Yoetzet Shoshana Samuels speaks about the intersection of halacha and women’s health, what has been accomplished in the eight years since this initiative was first started and why a Yoetzet is a valuable resource to the entire community.
What motivated you to become a Yoetzet Halacha?
Shoshana Samuels: I have always had two passions: learning Torah and Jewish law, and helping people. I was thrilled to realize I could accomplish them both with this role. Yoatzot study the laws of taharat hamishpacha from their earliest roots through contemporary poskim intensively at Nishmat for two years and get to enjoy this wonderfully challenging and exciting opportunity to engage in Talmud Torah, while also focusing their course work toward helping women (and on occasion, couples) as they engage in the mitzvah of taharat hamishpacha. They also receive many hours of supplementary training on essential topics in biology, psychology and sexuality so they can apply the traditional halachic study with contemporary on-the-ground reality.
What training was involved in becoming a Yoetzet?
SS: I was blessed to do Nishmat’s training in Israel, and also received a master’s in Jewish Philosophy from Ben Gurion University. These two high-level programs, in addition to studying previously at the Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS), prepared me very well for my two posts here in Teaneck, as a Yoetzet and as a teacher of Halakha and Jewish Philosophy at Ma’ayanot.
How would you describe the role of a Yoetzet Halacha to someone who is unfamiliar?
SS: There is a significant and important set of Jewish laws that relate to women’s health and it is critical that women have access to, and feel comfortable accessing, guidance in navigating this overlap. A Yoetzet Halacha is a woman who is well trained in both Jewish law and women’s health and therefore serves as an address for these questions, struggles and conversations.
How is your role different from that of a shul rabbi? Do you work together with any of the community rabbis?
SS: If you look at my phone contacts in the “R”s, you wouldn’t believe how many rabbis’ phone numbers are in there! I work with many rabbis on many occasions. Sometimes women ask me a question that is not “halacha pesuka,” a clear-cut halachic ruling with consensus, but rather is a question that demands a psak halacha, a ruling specific to this instance or this sort of question. In such cases I offer a choice: I can either advise her of the relevant details so that she is equipped to speak about the issue with her rabbi personally or, in the event that she is not comfortable discussing this issue with her rabbi directly, to call him on her behalf. Many women were calling me in the first place because they were not comfortable, which is why I often am in contact with local rabbanim. Also, once in a while something comes up in the conversation that I ask whether I can share this information with her rav. For example, if in the conversation a personal detail regarding illness, strained finances or a strained relationship comes up, I will ask her if she has spoken with the rabbi about this issue and if she’d like me to share the detail with him so she can have the invaluable support of her rabbi and rebbetzin in her moment of difficulty.
I so appreciate the availability, timeliness and collaboration I have experienced with the wonderful rabbis in this community.
Rabbis study a far broader scope of halacha than Yoatzot. Nishmat’s Yoetzet training helps me serve in this specific area: the overlap between Jewish law and women’s health.
Can you share a sampling of the types of questions you receive?
SS: Questions range from Jewish law pre-marriage through menopause. Women have questions about fertility, infertility, pregnancy loss, mikva, relationships, sexuality, birth control and gynecological exams at any given point in their adult life.
Women ask questions about the details of halachic procedures: “I did a bedika today at 8:40 p.m.; was that too late?” “I am unsure exactly how and when to start counting my seven clean days. Can you help me?” “If I experienced a flow on June 20th, when are my onot? Can you help me with that?” That last one comes up a lot especially when women who were on a hormonal contraceptive are looking to conceive.
Questions come up that have to do with scheduling: “I am going out of town for a wedding next week and now see I am also scheduled to go to the mikva. Is there any way I can do both?” “I am on day three of the seven clean days and have an ob/gyn appointment in a few hours. What do I need to know to get through this without having to restart my seven clean days?”
Sometimes even these scheduling questions are very sensitive: “My doctor wants me to come in for an intrauterine insemination (IUI) on Monday. I am going to the mikva Monday night. What do I do? Any tips?” or “My husband and I are trying to conceive and I think I am missing my window of opportunity. Can it be I am suffering from halachic infertility? How do I know? What do I do if I am?”
Questions come up that have to do the halachic process and women’s health: “I’m not quite sure of my status. Can I explain and you’ll help me figure it out?” “I have a hard time doing bedikot. What should I do?” “I find physical intimacy difficult on mikva night. Have other women said that? Any ideas?” “I am about to get an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted. My doctor recommended I speak with you in advance for an overview of halachic ramifications.” “I just had breast surgery. Can I use the mikva with a bandage? Also, my doctor instructed me not to soak in a bath. How do I prepare for the mivka? Actually, can I use the mikva?!”
Many times, answering a woman’s question involves collaborating with medical and sometimes mental health professionals, rabbis, the mikva and Nechamacomfort, Project S.A.R.A.H., Sharsheret and YeshTikva, the indispensable local non-profits focused on different aspects of women’s health. All questions are good questions and all struggles are good questions that are simply not formulated yet; those are very welcome as well.
Are there any taharat hamishpacha myths you would like to dispel?
SS: Many of the questions I receive involve staining small amounts of uterine blood. Many women erroneously think that all uterine bleeding makes a woman a niddah and so they make themselves a niddah sooner than the halacha does. That’s a shame.
Another damaging misconception is that Judaism, God forbid, has a negative view on sexuality. The Torah has two distinct mitzvot surrounding physical intimacy: procreation and the mitzvah to have relations. Yes, this is in the specific context of marriage and while a woman is a tehora. That does not take away from the Torah’s fundamental positive viewpoint that sexuality can, and should be, a positive aspect of a couple’s relationship.
How do you handle questions you receive about issues you haven’t personally encountered, such as the halachic implications of menopause?
SS: Part of Nishmat’s training includes hours of medical lectures to achieve proficiency in basic women’s health. Still, I’d say I have learned a good deal about many situations (including, but not limited to, menopause) from the women who have explained their symptoms and experiences to me. I try to be sensitive to the unique stressors of that transitional stage. Halachically speaking the laws of staining are one unit with implications at many stages of life: postpartum, hormonal contraception and peri-menopause. The ins and outs of the halachot on staining as they apply in all variations are relatively uniform. I try to give women a basic overview so they can avoid certain things that will unnecessarily complicate their halachic status.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working as a Yoetzet?
SS: I very much appreciate this very personal and private way of substantially increasing women’s halachic quality of life. Women need answers. Women need clarity about confusing situations. Women need to know about local resources. They need to be heard. I’m so honored to get to listen and help them out. Confusion and ambiguity in taharat hamishpacha and/or women’s health and sexuality can lead to very many unpleasant thoughts, feelings and situations.
How do you spread the word about the availability of a Yoetzet to answer questions from the entire Teaneck community?
SS: I have been privileged to be invited to give a Torah lecture or lead a halachic discussion on the laws of taharat hamishpacha at many shuls in the Teaneck area. However, more often referrals come via word of mouth. Women tell me all the time, “I got your number from so-and-so who said I should have called you last week.”
Is there a general message you would like to share about taharat hamishpacha, based on the calls you have you received?
SS: These laws were not made to cause undue hardship or suffering, God forbid. Please reach out to a rabbi (or to me, if you’re not comfortable speaking with a male about this issue) to seek guidance. There is often more halachic room available than people think and navigating that crawl space is best done with a person trained thoroughly in that area of law. Also, one more time, not all blood makes a woman a niddah.
The Third-Annual Community-wide Yoetzet Event for Women will take place on Monday, July 20, at 8 p.m. at Congregation Rinat Israel, 389 West Englewood Avenue. For more information or to RSVP and/or sponsor the event, please visit www.rinat.org/teaneckyoetzet.
Tamar Snyder Chaitovsky is a marketing and communications professional who lives in Teaneck with her husband and two children.
By Tamar Snyder Chaitovsky