May 27, 2024
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Yoatzot: Both ‘Strongly Opposed’ and ‘Warmly Welcomed’ in the Teaneck Community

The Jewish Link received significant criticism in the last few weeks regarding how we referenced the recent Yoetzet event that took place in our community. We published advertisements, save-the-dates and a Q&A with the Teaneck yoetzet, and finally reported on the event, which welcomed approximately 300 of our community’s women. Quite simply, we referred to it as the “Third Annual Community-wide Yoetzet Event,” because that was the title of the event. But, our critics argued, the Teaneck Yoetzet Program is sponsored by only two shuls out of more than 20 in our community. Why is the event being referred to as “community-wide”?

The answer is slightly more complicated than the question.

The Teaneck yoetzet program is close to 10 years old. Yoatzot (the plural of yoetzet), the large majority of whom are graduates of a two-year program at Nishmat in Jerusalem or its satellite program here in Teaneck (housed at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls), are billed as experts in the practical halacha aspects of taharat hamishpacha (family purity). Many, if not all, of these women are Torah scholars, kallah teachers, experienced educators or counselors in their own right before they ever enter the yoetzet program. The program is funded by Congregations Rinat Yisrael and Netivot Shalom, and quite recently, by a third shul, Congregation Shaare Tefillah. However, the Teaneck yoetzet, currently Shoshana Samuels, answers the questions of anyone who calls. Last year, it was shared at the annual event that women from all shuls in all sectors of the community have made use of the yoetzet to ask questions.

When the first yoetzet was brought to the community (Samuels is the second to serve Teaneck), all the rabbanim from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County were asked to contribute to support the community yoetzet, but as noted, only two Teaneck shuls initially became primary funders. “Do the math,” one rabbi told me. “If there are 20 shuls in Teaneck and 18 rabbis said no, you have to understand that the vast majority of the rabbis in this community don’t support this program.”

But the numbers might not be so telling: From speaking with no fewer than seven local rabbanim from a cross-section of the Orthodox community, it’s clear that not all 18 rabbis in the community who don’t financially support the program actually oppose the program, nor do all community women (including those women from the shuls that are primary funders) use the program. But there can be no mistaking that it has gained popularity over the past few years, and several rabbis I spoke to expressed surprise that the Teaneck yoetzet now answers 100 shailot a month from women throughout the community, as she stated in her presentation several weeks ago.

“The position is community-wide, because regardless of the shul a woman attends, the yoetzet answers the question,” said Rabbi Yosef Adler, rabbi of Congregation Rinat Yisrael. “She answers questions in a dignified, private and comfortable way, and therefore women are calling her in greater and greater numbers,” he said. “If I were a betting man, I would say she gets more calls than all the rabbanim in Bergen County combined,” Adler added.

Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah has also now developed a formal relationship with Samuels. The rabbi of this 100-family shul has arranged for her to present three shiurim each year and to be available throughout the year to women who would like to ask her questions. Her answering questions related to taharat hamishpacha is not intended to replace the rabbi, who remains available, but “she is another option,” he said.

If a woman wants to ask halachic questions to a kallah teacher, a rebbetzin, a mikvah attendant or a shlucha, it has in the past been understood that this person will go over the basics and then, if necessary, get on the phone with or otherwise reach a local Orthodox rabbi and get a definite answer. Conversely, the yoetzet program graduates female halachic advisors. Yoatzot will give a woman an answer if they ask a question. They will paskin a shailah, so to speak. They will look at bedikah (examination) cloths and tell you yes or no. One rabbi I spoke to, who does not support the program, said he was told that the most common question fielded by yoatzot is “What time is shkiah (sunset)?” He was not under the impression that yoatzot look at bedikah cloths.

Another rabbi I spoke to said that he has come to value individual, specific yoatzot who live and work here, and if a female congregant asks him if she can speak to a particular yoetzet, he says yes, even though his shul is not among those who monetarily support the program. He said that he feels women are too strict regarding certain issues if they don’t ask, and since he can recommend an individual yoetzet whom he knows and trusts, then it is acceptable, especially if the women would not otherwise seek advice from anyone.

This appears to be the type of support Nishmat has garnered. By stating that if yoatzot were not present, women simply would not ask questions related to taharat hamishpacha of their rabbanim. It is clear there are women in the community who value this option, likely because they feel uncomfortable speaking to a man about these things. It should be said, however, that several rabbanim took exception to this statement, as they get many, many calls from women asking shailot, over and above the yoetzet’s stated call volume, and they feel that the women in their communities by and large do not have an issue bringing their questions to them.

But for those who do bring their questions to the yoetzet, we were asked, are women unclear how, why and in what manner questions can or should be brought to their rav, as opposed to a yoetzet? While of course it is understandable that women would more naturally like to speak to a fellow woman about “female things,” halachic issues of this nature are a significant and important part of our mesorah (tradition) that have been entrusted exclusively to rabbanim for generations. At the moment a woman asks a rav her question, it is clear that the rav understands that future Jewish lives could be brought into being, or not, because of this shailah. (And for such other important shailot, does a woman truly require a separate halachic advisor to answer such questions? Is there a need for a special advisor to address women’s questions related to kashrus, their children’s chinuch [education] or business?)

In fact, colors, and specifically staining related to the shiva neki’im (seven clean days), is one of the last vestiges of our oral mesorah, according to several recordings by prominent rabbanim available on YUTorah.org. While it is certainly possible, and even allowable, to teach women the vagaries of the colors, they are learning them without context of the rest of the mesorah, which is part of the intensive study required of those individuals training in a years-long process to become rabbis.

If an Orthodox rabbi’s understanding of Hilchos Niddah rests on a larger understanding of the entire Shas, it follows that the additional context provided may be relevant to women’s questions. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, shlita, is on record, in relation to this issue specifically, as saying that to paskin in one area of halacha without a full understanding of the entirety is a grave mistake. “It’s like you want to go see a gastroenterologist or other specialist,” one local rabbi told me. “That person needs to have an MD first, before they specialize,” he said. Another rabbi made a somewhat similar reference. “It’s like you are going to a mechanic who only specializes in carburetors. If they don’t know how carburetors work with the rest of the car, you might have a problem,” he explained.

While the cogency of this point about a larger understanding of Shas resounds, it was Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, of Congregation Beth Abraham, who reminded me why Teaneck is such a peaceful Jewish community, and why it’s possible for such a community to both strongly oppose and warmly welcome a yoetzet at the same time. “As concerned as I am about the yoetzet movement, the value of giving appropriate respect to a colleague and his position, certainly one who is responsible for the primacy of Torah study in our community, is a far greater value. It is very hard to discuss a genuine milchamto shel torah (how Torah must be learned, i.e., the fight for the ‘truth’ of Torah) in a newspaper without it sowing discord and unintended disharmony.”

In the hopes of engendering further private discussion, Rabbi Neuburger added the following: “Like most halachic matters, their discussion does not belong in a newspaper. They belong in the context of shiurim and in the vibrant dialogue of the Beis HaMedrash. A newspaper can rarely give sensitive matters the nuance and depth that they deserve.”

To that end, it should be noted that the collected rabbinic wisdom in our community is vast, and our readers should note that the Jewish Link’s presentation of the yoetzet event was simply that: a reporting on an event, like many others that take place every single week in our community. And as always, if anyone has further questions, they would be well advised to discuss the matter with their rabbanim, while affording them the same respect that our rabbanim accord one another.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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