Apr 26, 2023 12:15 PM
Some Haredi rabbis are insisting that women refrain from seeking guidance about Jewish laws related to menstruation and sex from other women, including yoatzot, counselors who are trained to answer such questions.
In a proclamation obtained and verified by Shtetl, the Chabad Beth Din of Crown Heights urges community members not to work with yoatzot, and instead take their questions about taharat hamishpacha, Jewish laws of family purity, only to male rabbis. The document was seen on a sealed official bulletin board at the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where it was up for at least one month.
In the document, translated from Hebrew by Shtetl, Rabbis Avraham Azdaba and Yosef Yeshaya Braun say they’ve received “a number of inquiries” about yoatzot. “One may not rely on the words of irresponsible women of weak mind, the so-called Yoatzot (and by whatever other name they may be known), on any halakhic matter, and they should not be consulted at all,” the letter says.
Under a strict reading of Jewish law, a woman is forbidden to have sex while she is a niddah. A woman is a niddah when she is menstruating, for seven days after the end of her period, and then until she has immersed herself in a mikveh. Other situations may also cause a woman to become a niddah, such as hymen bleeding. When a Haredi woman is unsure of her niddah status, she – or her husband – can give her stained underwear, or a separate cloth called a bedikah cloth, to a male rabbi for him to evaluate according to complicated Jewish laws.
Based on factors such as color and size of the stain, the rabbi can determine when the couple can have sex again. Some Haredi communities have dropboxes where couples can place the underwear or cloth; these boxes provide some privacy while accommodating rabbis’ busy schedules.
Some interviewed by Shtetl said they viewed these traditions as a normal part of everyday life and don’t think asking male rabbis sensitive questions is always uncomfortable. But others endorsed innovations that have, in recent years, allowed women to follow Jewish law in a way they find more comfortable.
In a blog post, Miriam Levy-Haim, an adviser at Yeshiva University who grew up Chabad in Crown Heights, wrote that the anti-yoatzot letter denigrated women’s scholarship and caused “deep pain” to women in the community.
“Every aspect of the mitzvah of taharas hamishpacha, indeed many elements of the daily functioning of a kosher Jewish home, depends on the knowledge, intelligence, discretion, good judgment, and integrity of Jewish women,” she wrote. “Does Rabbi Braun mean to suggest that women are not reliable? That women are incapable, incompetent, and less than worthy of respect?”
Chabad, known for being more open than other Hasidic sects, appears to be unique in the Hasidic community for publicly grappling with the subject of yoatzot at all.
Nishmat, an Israeli-based organization dedicated to women’s higher religious learning, started a yoetzet training program in 1997. The two-year certification program includes an in-depth study of niddah with supplementary studies of women’s medicine and halacha. At first, it only answered people’s questions over the phone or online. Now, some Modern Orthodox synagogues have a yoetzet on staff.
Nishmat opened a U.S. branch in 2011. Atara Eis, a yoetzet who leads the U.S. branch, told Shtetl there are 21 yoatzot employed in communities in the U.S., with more who are not officially employed. Eis said this number has increased consistently since 2011.
Eis said yoatzot are careful not to pasken, or make a halachic ruling; this would infringe on rabbis’ domain. Instead, yoatzot study halachic rulings that have been made in the past, and advise accordingly. “We do not pasken,” Eis said. “Women who study in our program are learned. But they are not given permission to pasken. Our yoatzot turn to rabbis if there’s ever anything that requires psak.”
“I’ve seen situations where if you don’t know what the latest contraceptive option is, and a woman is given permission to use contraception but then she’s not given the right halachic guidance because there’s not an understanding of what is going on medically to her body, we have a problem,” Eis said. “We’re here to stop women’s suffering. That’s why we exist. It’s not to make waves. It’s not to change the role of women. None of that.”
Devorah Backman, who lived in the Chabad Crown Heights community for years, said she views yoatzot as a positive development and was disappointed when she saw the rabbis’ letter. “I’ve been married for ten years, and I found the idea of involving a rabbi in very personal parts of my intimate life to be extremely bothersome. I remember telling my kallah teacher, when I first learned about it, ‘I’m not going to do this,’” said Backman, who has also written for Shtetl.