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The delicate balance between tradition and modernity is shifting in Orthodox circles, as women continue to maintain classic roles of motherhood and deference to rabbinic hegemony, while at the same time achieving recognition for their intellectual abilities in religious fields that were once male domains.
This trend was apparent on Sunday evening as Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox institution that certifies women to act as halachic advisers on specific issues, lifted a 10-year restriction that had been put in place on their certifications' validity.
"Because we understood the historic and political significance of creating women halachic experts and the fact that we were stepping where no one had in 3,000 years - we chose to proceed with caution," said Rabbi Yehuda Henkin.
Henkin, a former chief rabbi of the Beit She'an Valley area, provides rabbinic guidance for Nishmat, which his headed by his wife, Chana Henkin.
"Now, 10 years after the first class graduated, the Yo'atzot Halacha [Halachic advisers] program is no longer just a promising experiment," he said. "The achievements of the yo'atzot are great and their positive effect on the community at large is so clear that we are removing the 10-year restriction permanently."
Twelve years ago, when Nishmat launched its intensive two-year training program, which includes extensive study of Jewish texts from Talmud to contemporary rabbinic literature, the notion that women could serve in a quasi-rabbinic position was highly controversial.
Nishmat was careful to call the women "advisers," not "rabbis," and the certification given to the women was issued for 10 years, at the end of which the women were to be reevaluated.
These steps deflected potential criticism coming from more conservative elements within Orthodoxy, especially in the rabbinic establishment, who were concerned that feminist trends were seeking to undermine tradition.
Nishmat, which works in close cooperation with the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership, trains female Torah scholars who are gradually closing the gap with members of the opposite sex, particularly in areas of Jewish law known as taharat hamishpaha ("family purity") that regulate a married couple's sexual relations.
These scholarly women strictly adhere to Halacha in their personal lives and fulfill traditional roles as mothers of large families.
Leading spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy such as Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva head Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitz and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the heads of Yeshivat Har Etzion, have all endorsed Nishmat.
According to Halacha, a woman is not allowed to have sexual relations with her husband during menstruation and for a week afterward.
As fertility treatments, family planning and use of hormones and drugs to treat gynecological problems have become more widespread, issues relating to family purity have grown increasingly complex.
Religious women who may be too embarrassed to consult with rabbis on such intimate issues have been increasingly turning to women well versed in Halacha and medicine for advice and answers. Most of these women do this not as an act of feminism-motivated revolt against the male-dominated rabbinical establishment, but out of comfort and convenience.
With the cautious entry of women into this field of Halacha as both empathetic and scholarly para-rabbinic figures, the number of questions being asked by observant women has skyrocketed, as the more congenial atmosphere of women consulting with women has encouraged more openness.
"If we had two or three questions a day on the hotline in the beginning 10 years ago, today we have 20 or 30," Dr. Deena Zimmerman, a physician and a graduate of the first class of halachic advisers, said before the ceremony.
"Women are much more willing to speak openly and freely about these issues when they are talking to another woman. So we are seeing not only more questions but also more detailed questions," she said.
The ceremony on Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of Zimmerman's graduation class and also celebrated the recent graduation of the sixth class of halachic advisers.
Over the past decade a total of 100,000 questions have been answered on the hotline, which fields questions from Israel and the Diaspora.
Another 9,000 questions have been answered on the English-language Internet site. A Hebrew-language Internet site was launched only recently, after Nishmat finally found funding for it.
Zimmerman, who is responsible for the Internet site, is careful to point out that the female halachic advisers are not replacing rabbis.
"Every question that the yo'atzot answer on our site is first approved by one of our rabbis," she explains.
Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig, who, together with Rabbi Henkin, approves all the Internet answers and is available for the female advisers to consult, said the yo'atzot program was never meant to undermine the rabbinic establishment.
"We are not looking for women who want to be men," Warhaftig said. "We want women who want to get closer to God."
Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, who answers questions on the hotline once a week, said that halachic advisers are different from rabbis who make unique, precedent-setting decisions.
"Even among rabbis there are very few who are really innovative," said Fraenkel, who admitted that most of time she answered questions on the phone without consulting a rabbi.
"Only when I want to be more lenient but do not see a way or when the issue is truly complicated do I consult a rabbi," she said.
"You need really broad intellectual 'shoulders' to be innovative," she continued. "You have to be on a very high scholarly level.
"Maybe one day we will have a woman who is that learned. But we are not there now. Not yet."