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.

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6 Responses

  1. micha berger says:

    I feel the need for yoatzot is the consequence of living in an increasingly decadent society — in a positive way. As we have to fight harder and harder against the tide to keep sexuality holy by keeping it private within the bounds of marriage, it is only natural that more women are less comfortable breaching its walls — even when necessary and appropriate.

    But the role isn’t entirely new. It’s more like a variant of the one many rebbetzins were historically — and still are — forced to assume without such education. I would therefore make sure pastoral counseling classes to the curriculum, so that fewer mistakes are made in determining whether a marriage is unhappy or altogether unhealthy, when a family’s dysfunction reached levels where family services should be involved and when they should be avoided — and help being part of that solution. We currently have amateurs with no training, very well meaning and holy baalos chessed, but who are relying on inution rather than others’ experience to know what to say to someone fragile like an abuse victim — what heals, and what can make problems worse. Training yoatzot to serve in that role can help reduce the number of such mistakes.

  2. tzippi says:

    That was a very bracing and thought-provoking summary.
    And a good point about kallah teachers. But a fair number of young women may move out of town and away from their kallah teachers after their weddings. So they will somehow have to be given tools beyond, “Give it to your husband to pass on.” That could be anything from name of reliable contacts in their new community to discussion on – gasp – actually talking to the rav oneself, if a yoetzet isn’t available.

  3. Nachum says:

    Indeed, lots of yoatzot are kallah teachers and vice versa, and “accompany” a woman from before her marriage through the years following it. It’s a good system.

  4. Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein. May our efforts meet with heavenly approval

  5. Tova Warburg Sinensky says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for opening this conversation so that there can be more widespread correct information about the training and work of yoatzot halacha. For more information please see the article in Times of Israel:

  6. Sarah says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein.
    I wonder if your ha’aros above – and specifically the first one – can serve to highlight a perhaps broader issue within our community today. You note that the need for Yoatzot “is far greater than people would have thought”. If I could point out, many women, even in the more chareidi sectors, knew of and could have expressed this need for years. It is the male half, including the Rabbanim (and other frum men in leadership positions), who were unaware – or unwilling to validate – the need. Unfortunately, there are other areas as well where frum women have valid needs and perspectives that are not being brought to the attention of Rabbanim, or are being dismissed as soon as they are expressed. This leads to psakim that may be invalid, to angst and suffering, and to the unfortunate diminishment of emunas chachamim.
    Perhaps the realization demonstrated above – that leadership in our community does not fully have the pulse and understand nearly half its constituency – will serve to open dialogue that aims to truly understand the needs, interests, wants and experiences of half our Nation. It is imperative for Rabbanim to recognize that in order for them to pasken on issues that primarily apply to women they need to understand the issue from the perspectives of women. This is something that can only be done by creating a conversation that involves women and by legitimizing perspectives that may not be intuitive to the men making the decisions.

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