For centuries, women have had to go to the only authorities available, male rabbis, when questions arise about perhaps the most intimate of issues — their sex lives.
But now, for the first time, there is a female Orthodox legal expert on American soil trained to respond to issues such as mikveh, a woman’s monthly cycle and couples’ fertility/infertility problems — issues that many rabbis’ wives’ have dealt with, on a more informal basis, in the past.
The new position — called a yoetzet halacha, Hebrew for adviser on Jewish law — was created by Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based center for women’s advanced Jewish learning that has trained some two dozen women to answer the technical questions about the various aspects of the laws of family purity.
Most of the women trained by Nishmat in the last six years now serve in Israel.
Bracha Rutner, 28, hired in September without fanfare by the Riverdale Jewish Center, is the first yoetzet halacha formally hired by a synagogue in this country.
She is the Jackie Robinson of the lower Bronx.
“I know I am paving the way” for future women with Nishmat certification to become yoetzot halacha at other U.S. congregations, Rutner said on a recent Friday morning, sitting in the study of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the Riverdale Jewish Center’s spiritual leader.
Speaking quietly, Rutner is the model of a young, observant wife — a hat covers her hair, long sleeves her arms. A day school graduate from Silver Spring, Md., she spent the past two years at Nishmat’s center in Israel studying for her new position.
Rutner’s new role is part of an increasingly public conversation that observant women are beginning to have about this most private and important of issues. The Israeli documentary “Tehora,” screened in the past several months in New York, helped begin the discussion. And the recent report by psychologist Michelle Friedman documenting Orthodox women’s feelings about sexuality and the Jewish legal system that regulates it has deepened the discourse.
“I think it’s very significant,” Carol Kaufman Newman, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said of Rutner’s position. “I think halacha will be better served by women being able to speak to women.
“We certainly support women in leadership positions,” she said, voicing her “extreme excitement that a rabbi of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature would hire someone in this position.”
At the Riverdale Jewish Center, they’re playing down the move. “This is not a revolution. This is not about feminism. This is about Torah,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt, who has served 19 years at the Jewish Center. “I don’t think of myself as an innovator. I’m just a country rabbi. I’m not Branch Rickey.” Rickey was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke baseball’s color line by hiring Jackie Robinson.
Rabbi Rosenblatt, who had met Rutner last year in Jerusalem, decided to let her join the synagogue’s educational staff without the glare of publicity, despite the historic nature of Rutner’s job. He wanted to see if it succeeded, if the community accepted her, if women called her.
Yes on all counts, he said.
Now he and Rutner feel comfortable going public. Rutner, who has taken part in community forums over the past several months, will be part of a women-only “rebbetzins’ panel” during the annual conference of the Rabbinical Council of America June 2-4 in Rye Brook, N.Y.
A graduate of Stern College (with a nearly finished master’s degree from Hebrew University), Rutner always wanted to be a teacher (she does that too, part-time, at the Yeshivah of Flatbush). Then she heard about the Nishmat program.
“I thought it was important to help people improve their level of observance,” she said.
A yoetzet halacha has more specialized duties and training than a congregational intern, a pseudo-rabbinic position, traditionally male in the Orthodox community, which opened to women in recent years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side. Congregational interns preach sermons, perform chaplaincy duties and counsel congregants.
“She doesn’t have a rabbi’s portfolio,” Rabbi Rosenblatt said. “This is an educational function — a community educator.
“Our shul is a teaching shul,” like a teaching hospital, he said. RJC has four rabbinic interns, more than any congregation in the country, Rabbi Rosenblatt said. Next year he plans to add two more.
“When I choose interns, I choose for character,” the rabbi said.
When Rabbi Rosenblatt met Rutner at Nishmat, “I did not test her about any of her expertise. I was looking for character,” he said.
The rabbi was satisfied. He already knew Nishmat’s reputation. Students in its yoetzet halacha program “devote two years to intensive study with rabbinic authorities in Taharat Hamishpacha [family purity],” according to the school’s Web site (www.yoatzot.org). “They receive training from experts in modern medicine and psychology, including gynecology, infertility, women’s health, family dynamics and sexuality.”
“This is a new role that we created,” said Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Nishmat dean. “There’s a tremendous need. The time has come. There are questions that are going unanswered.”
Nishmat began its yoetzet halacha program six years ago. “It’s on exactly the same level as rabbinical training,” Rabbanit Henkin told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
It’s an accepted part of Israel’s Modern Orthodox community, she said. “Time after time rabbis come up to me and congratulate me on the program.”
Now, eyes are on Rutner’s success in the United States.
“For many women in the community,” Rabbanit Henkin said, “Bracha represents both a role model and a validation of their role as women.”
Rutner wondered if women who didn’t know her would call with questions when she came to Riverdale. “I was very nervous about it,” she acknowledged.
Within a week the first call came on her cellular phone. It was a woman from the synagogue, Rutner said. The woman asked a detailed question.
“I asked her many questions,” Rutner said. “I consulted. I called her back with an answer.”
The caller was satisfied. More women contacted Rutner.
“It shows how important taharat hamishpacha is for Judaism,” Rutner said.
Rutner works out of her Riverdale home, in addition to teaching classes at RJC and speaking to small parlor groups in the neighborhood.
She gets calls from women, mostly young, who are embarrassed to discuss intimate matters with a man, or who had adopted stringencies that hurt their reproductive chances. She tells about a woman who had been married two years and had not conceived. She followed Rutner’s advice and became pregnant two months later.
Rutner has been accepted in the congregation because of her professionalism and because of the rabbi’s efforts in explaining what a yoetzet halacha does, said David Sable, a lifelong member of RJC and its current board chairman.
“There wasn’t a murmur” against the innovation, Sable said. In addition to a letter Rabbi Rosenblatt sent to members introducing Rutner, the rabbi spoke about her role several times from the pulpit.
“There was no chest beating,” no bragging about the congregation stepping into uncharted Jewish territory,” Sable said. “It was an understood and accepted thing from the start,” the rabbi said. “Women use it, and that’s the end of it. I hear the buzz among the young women: ‘If you have a question, why wouldn’t you use her?’ ”
In hiring Rutner, the synagogue recognized that it was taking a step that would aid the observance of the family purity laws, both in its membership and in the wider Jewish community, said Rabbi Rosenblatt. He had suspected there were women in his congregation who hadn’t contacted him with family purity questions because of their personal nature. And some of the women who did contact him, especially those still waiting to have children, spoke in pain.
“I didn’t need a focus group” to determine that many women would feel more comfortable dealing with another woman, Rabbi Rosenblatt said. “I know my people. I know the suffering of my people.”
In his letter to the congregation, the rabbi wrote: “In an age when women have the option to consult female physicians in areas where modesty might make them reticent, I feel it is imperative that barriers of embarrassment be removed from these observances of the Torah.”
He went on to say: “I will remain open and accessible to anyone who would prefer to consult with me. Our Yoetzet Halacha represents an option for women with queries.”
While Rutner now receives several calls a day, “I still handle the same number of calls,” Rabbi Rosenblatt said. “I see it as a net gain.”
Rabbi Rosenblatt said the women who contact Rutner “are the people who were not asking questions” previously of him, a man.
While some view the establishment of this new role as part of a revolution in Orthodox women’s leadership, others downplay its significance.
“Yes, it’s true that there are issues that women are comfortable dealing with women rather than with rabbis,” said Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York who is spending this semester on a fellowship at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. But Heilman, an expert on the contemporary Orthodox community, said he doesn’t view a synagogue engaging a yoetzet halacha “as a significant innovation.”
“It speaks much more to modern America,” to the progressive nature of the Modern Orthodox community, particularly in a flourishing neighborhood like Riverdale, than to any religious exigencies, he said.
“This is an administrative thing, it’s not a rabbinic thing,” Heilman said. “I don’t know that it’s different than having a woman who is an assistant to the rabbi” and handles certain educational and administrative duties.
Backed by the Orthodox Caucus, the RJC’s yoetzet halacha initiative is paid for by a group of “young families” in the congregation, Rabbi Rosenblatt said.
He has no plans to promote yoetzot halacha to other synagogues in the U.S., he said. “In the long run,” Rabbi Rosenblatt said, “success sells itself.”
Rabbi Rosenblatt said some rabbis have called expressing interest in the program.
“Riverdale is a visible community,” he said. “When something happens in Riverdale, soon the world knows about it.”
‘Wig-gate’ forcing serious identity questions.
Jerusalem — “Wig-gate,” it turns out, is leading to some tangled debates in this most holy of cities, ones that go to the heart of Orthodox women’s sense of identity and the Orthodox community’s gap between the haves and the have-nots.
While few if any wig wearers were thrilled by their rabbis’ insistence last week that they discard their fashionable, often exorbitantly priced natural-hair wigs until they can determine whether they are ritually clean or impure, most say the experience has taught them some valuable lessons.
Time and again, women interviewed by The Jewish Week said that the controversy over wigs made with hair procured from women during a Hindu ritual motivated them to do some soul searching.
“Many rabbis are now questioning whether it’s right for women to spend so much money on a wig,” said Judith Rosenblum, a Jerusalem social worker who has worn a wig throughout her married life. “And they are pointing out that there is a gap between the women who can afford expensive wigs and those who can’t.”
“Then there’s the issue of identity,” she said. “There are women who have never been seen in public without a wig in 30 or 40 years, and suddenly we’re seeing their inner personalities shine through.
“Some women choose to wear hats, some scarves,” Rosenblum said. “It’s very personal. We’re showing an inner part of ourselves.”
Rosenblum predicted that even after the crisis passes, “many of us will perhaps re-examine the course we want to take and how we want to present ourselves to ourselves and others.”
Those outside the community who are wondering what all the fuss is about simply don’t understand the importance Orthodox women give to head coverings, said Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist and head of the Lafer Center for Gender Studies at Hebrew University.
“A wig is a symbol, just like other head coverings, and provides a cultural distinction,” El-Or said. “Before a woman even opens her mouth, I can look at her head and guess who she is. I may be wrong, but I can usually tell a lot.”
So can most Israelis, who tend to form opinions about a woman’s religious and political allegiances based on how she dresses.
“It’s all a matter of choice and identity,” El-Or said, explaining how much time and thought religious women invest in their head coverings and wardrobes.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the many constraints on women in fervently religious circles, “people have developed little tastes and distinctions,” the anthropologist said. “If I’m Sephardi, do I obey [former Sephardi chief rabbi] Ovadia Yosef, who says not to wear a wig, or do I follow the Ashkenazi teachers I had in school who wear wigs?
“Do I go according to Zionist Orthodoxy and wear a kerchief and let some hair show in the front? Many of them wear wigs on special occasion. Do I wear a wig and a hat on top of it? Do I wear a synthetic wig, a kerchief?”
Even one’s choice of kerchief is a statement, El-Or stressed.
“There is so much creativity in how the kerchief is worn — colors, how much hair you show,” she said. “Do I go wear a long kerchief with a loop on top, like an Arab keffiyah, or go for something more hippie? Such choices distinguish the woman from non-Jews, from secular Jews, and from other religious Jews.”
El-Or believes that the wig controversy will have some long-term effects.
“It was such a shock to those who took things for granted. Suddenly, people are looking into the mechanisms: into the money, the importance of making distinctions,” she said. “Rabbis are pointing out that we’re in a bad economic situation and that there are many women who cannot afford it.”
And just perhaps, El-Or said, certain Orthodox communities that have long considered themselves to be more kosher than perhaps Sephardim or those in the national religious camp might realize that the others “aren’t that wrong after all.”
Despite some initial panic over “wig-gate,” which manifested itself through wig burnings and frantic phone calls to hot-lines hastily set up last week in Israel and the U.S., the majority of observant women seem to be taking the matter in stride.
Rather than stay home and brood, religious women in Israel and abroad, including Borough Park, Brooklyn, flocked to their neighborhood hat stores and ordered thousands of hats, scarves and snoods.
“The Kodesh Borechu [the Holy One] is testing us to see how much we love him,” said a woman named Malke, a 37-year-old mother of seven, while riding the No. 4 bus on the way to the fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Geula.
Wearing a black crocheted snood — a loose head covering that concealed all her hair — Malke said that she missed her sheitels, but insisted that the Jewish law must take precedence.
“Sure it’s hard for me to go around like this. I feel like I’m cleaning my house,” Malke said with a wry laugh, raising her eyebrows in the direction of her snood, which hugged her face but billowed out at the back of her neck.
Malke noted that the wig she owns, which was custom-made, cost $900. And even though she has been assured that the brand is kosher, “my rabbi said not to wear it until everything is settled,” she said.
For Malke, the very notion that the wig’s hair might have been procured through what Jewish law calls idolatry “is very upsetting,” she said.
“Idolatry is a grave sin and it’s a mitzvah to adhere to the law. How often do you have the chance to perform a mitzvah?” she asked with sincerity.
Chevy Weiss, an American-Israeli career woman who owns three expensive wigs, including one believed to be unkosher, said that if anything “the events over the past few weeks illustrate that at the end of the day, no matter how many strides religious women have made … no matter how well they have been able to blend their modest dress code with today’s fashion and styles, they will set everything aside for Judaism and Torah law.”
Far from resenting what some might consider blind adherence to rabbinic authority, Weiss, who heads a PR firm, thinks “it’s beautiful to see thousands of women give up their beautiful look and wear hats or scarves rather than a wig while this issue is being resolved.”
It has “led women to hang up their wigs and to take a route they would generally not want to take,” she said.
In the end, El-Or predicted, most wigs will be deemed permissible.
“Wigs have historical legitimacy going back to the 19th century,” she said. “Ashkenazi rabbis in Europe allowed women to wear them in order not to be mocked or to draw undue attention from non-Jews.” Back then, “no one thought that a symbol of modesty would become synonymous with beauty.”
Now, El-Or said, “wigs are ingrained and won’t go away, and the rabbis know it.”
So, too, do most religious women.
“My hair is nothing compared to my wig,” said a 50ish woman who gave her name as Shoshana, walking down the main street of Geula. Like most of the other women on the street, she wore a snood, “but that’s only because I ran out of the house,” she said. “My wigs are fine and I’m still wearing them.”
Clearly annoyed by the entire controversy, Shoshana expressed the hope that it will soon blow over.
“Women want to look nice and their husbands want them to look nice,” she said. “Let’s get rid of the treif [non-kosher] wigs and get on with it.”