Twelve new female halachic advisers, ordained in Jerusalem on Wednesday, will help mitigate inhibitions felt by religious women in need of halachic advice on the intimacies of Jewish family purity laws.
These 12 women, the fourth graduating class of halachic advisers produced by Nishmat, a college for higher Jewish learning in Bayit Vagan, are trained to answer the same questions normally directed at a male rabbi. But as women answering questions posed by women these advisers minimize the awkwardness that often accompanies exposing intimate details on, for example, menstruation to a male stranger.
Dean of Nishmat Chana Henkin said that in many cases religious women who were apprehensive about asking a rabbi about family purity laws were needlessly stringent on themselves.
"Women remain separated from their husbands needlessly," said Henkin. "There are quite a few babies in this world that probably never would have been born if our advisers had not helped make the halacha more accessible."
However, Henkin's husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, who, together with Rabbi Ya'acov Warhaftig, supervises the fielding of dozens of questions via Internet and a special daily hot-line, said that the advisers are not a substitute for male halachic authority.
"We purposely call them halachic 'advisers' to emphasize their role in citing known, undisputed Jewish law. But none of the women are poskei halacha (halachic authorities). None of them make decisions on new, unprecedented issues in halacha."
He added that "very few men have enough halachic knowledge to make groundbreaking halachic decisions let alone women...But the time will come when women will have the appropriate background necessary to make innovative halachic decisions."
Although Henkin did not admit it, his willingness to accept the possibility of a female halachic authority equal to men, even in theory, is a radical idea not just in haredi circles. Even many religious Zionist rabbis would be opposed to a female rabbi deciding precedent-making questions in halacha.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, admittedly a conservative though widely respected religious Zionist halachic authority, announced several years ago that any man who learns Torah from a woman should be pitied.
In the meantime, rabbis Warhaftig and Henkin answer the tough questions. Chana Henkin said that six to eight questions are fielded daily on Nishmat's Internet site [www.yoatzot.org] and over the past five years about 50,000 questions have been answered on Nishmat's Golda Koschitzky Women's Halachic Hotline.
Rabbi Henkin said that during their two-year course of studies female halachic advisers cover all of the studies demanded by the Israeli Rabbinate for rabbinic ordination.
But unlike the men, the women are required to study physiology, anatomy and certain medical issues such as the effect of birth control on the body and fertility problems.
"We also require women to learn basic psychology, sexology and counseling," Rabbi Henkin said.
Henkin does not rule out the possibility that additional fields of halachic will be taught to women. "We've thought about opening a course to teach women the halachot of kashrut. But it is still in the planning stages," he said.
Ira and Charlotte Green sponsored Wednesday evening's ordination ceremony for the new advisers who will join the other 28 who have already been trained. Other major supporters of the program include Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein and Moshael, Zahava and Bethia Straus. Dr. Norman Lamm, former rector of Yeshiva University, is an academic adviser to Nishmat.
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