Yoatzot: What We Learned
Contrary to some of the rather strident reactions to the recent piece, I would rank the article one of the most successful ever to appear in Cross-Currents. Despite the imputing of all kinds of nefarious objectives, the purpose really was that different parts of the community would hear the arguments – and the passion – of others. I believe the exchange allowed people from the more yeshivish community to learn about something they regarded with suspicion, and see some of that hesitation ease. Those outside of the yeshivish community came eyeball to eyeball with the skittishness of some about what is becoming a new institution in Orthodox life.
Suffering the abuse of many is a small price to pay for a successful learning exercise. All the more so since the abuse was often dished out by those who had nothing else to gain other than kavod shomayim. May they be rewarded for their passion!
Here are some things that I believe we have learned from it. (With this, we will be closing comments to the last piece. Not wanting to reignite passions, we will publish few, if any, comments to this piece. The discussion should now take place within local communities.)
- The need for yoatzot is far greater than people would have thought. Like it or not, a large number of woman – and that includes those in the haredi community as well – are uncomfortable with presenting intimate issues to males, directly or otherwise. That leads to a significant number of women not asking the questions they should. This may be the factor that shifts the opinions of those who are still not ready to fully embrace the institution. They concede the good that has come from them, and are increasingly willing to muffle any opposition.
- The training of yoatzot is more serious and extensive than many imagined. In many cases, it means that they have more knowledge of shitos and mekoros than rabbonim who are not “into” the sugyos of hilchos nidah. It includes vetting the candidates for personal observance, and explaining the need to work in conjunction with rabbonim who must be the arbiters of more complex cases.
- Those who conceived of the institutions (i.e the Henkins) did a better job than many thought at making yoatzot distinct from other stirrings in the community whose motivation is rejected by large parts of the community and its leadership. They consciously sought to keep yoatzot from being looked at as a stepping stone to female clergy.
- The difference in perspective between residents of Israel and chutz la-Aretz has created two dialects, each incomprehensible to the other. It is that bad. Those in Israel don’t understand the concerns of the right in the US, who watch the goings-on on the far left with utter rejection. Americans see a pitched battle to undermine mesorah, and don’t know whether to laugh or cry when they read the material of maharats and rabbahs that could just as easily have been written by Episcopalians. Those same Americans, however, are simply unaware of a very different kind of advanced learning for women that is common in the DL community in Israel, which is so often completely free of the feminist and egalitarian agendas on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans see feminist ghosts at every turn; Israelis don’t see enough of them.
- Israelis do not pay sufficient attention to the headline-grabbers in their own neighborhoods who pointedly include yoatzot when they make their case for the reality of female clergy. They fail to take into account the fact that the ones damaging their cause are not American roshei yeshivah, but their own left-wing. The latter virtually assure that any innovation will be met with more rejection than is necessary. The same pushback occurs when a minority of yoatzot (possibly those trained in the US, rather than Israel?) tumpet their egalitarian leanings.
- Contrary to what many thought, the yoatzot enterprise followed what others would have to admit was proper procedure. Those in charge asked for and secured the approval of some major halachic figures in their community. They did what we all say is what people should do when coming up with new ideas. They went to their leaders.
- On the other hand, the boosters of yoatzot have not adequately thought through what the reaction ought to be by those outside their camp. If they believe that yoatzot ought to become part of the entire Orthodox community, not just the MO and DL camps, they must somehow overcome the skepticism and seek the approval of gedolim in other camps. Sarah Schenirer got her “Shalom u-berachah” quickly from the Belzer Rebbe; the approval of others took longer. It is just not reasonable to expect those in other camps to accept the thinking of leaders of the DL camp, without the support of their own leaders.
- Until such time as yoatzot meet with universal acclaim, we might very well witness variations on the theme. There are those who are uncomfortable with any new title for women, seeing such titles as tainted by association with OO et al. (As stated above, the fears behind this may very well be overstated in the American yeshivah camp, but they are undervalued by our DL brothers and sisters.) As they come to appreciate the accomplishments of yoatzot, they may come up with related (but not identical) ideas. One prominent rov who fully believes that too many women are holding back from asking questions of males but is not ready for yoatzot suggest that our cadre of kallah teachers be trained to act as the go-betweens for their clientele well past their march towards the chupah. Because so many spouses of rabbonim no longer serve as the traditional Rebbetzin (who used to field the questions in the past), they must be replaced with other women. Kallah teachers may be a promising source of talent.