Sensitivity and Halacha

We trust female doctors with our lives, so why not female Torah scholars?

woman rabbi 88 (photo credit: )
woman rabbi 88
(photo credit: )
The Orthodox Jewish women's organization Kolech will celebrate its tenth anniversary today. On this occasion we join Kolech in calling for the creation of independent rabbinic divorce courts that would eventually integrate female Torah scholars as rabbinical judges. We, like Kolech, believe that women can bring to the rabbinic court system direly needed female sensitivities during the divorce process. In part thanks to Kolech, over the past decade Orthodox women have made astounding headway in the field of Torah education. In post-high school institutions, such as Midreshet Lindenbaum (Bruria), Midreshet Ein Hanatziv and Matan, women learn Talmud and rabbinic literature on the highest levels. Today there is a cadre of modern Orthodox women who are totally committed to religious observance and also have the Talmudic learning skills that many men lack. Already, this female Torah scholarship has made its mark. There are female educators who teach Talmud and Halacha, there are female university professors on par with men in their knowledge of rabbinic literature and there are female Rabbinic Court advocates (toanot rabaniot), well versed in Jewish divorce laws, who represent women before male-only rabbinic court panels. But women have also gradually moved into a field that has traditionally been reserved exclusively for the rabbi: deciding halachic practice. The best example of this trend is Nishmat, an advanced educational institution with centers in both Israel and the US. For at least a decade, Nishmat has been training women to respond to questions on issues of family purity. Women at Nishmat learn all the intricacies of Jewish law. Many of the rabbis who teach at Nishmat also prepare Orthodox men to become rabbis. For fear of arousing a backlash from the male rabbinic establishment, Nishmat is careful to point out that its advisers do not make groundbreaking legal decisions. Rather they restrict themselves to quoting previous precedents. When in doubt they always consult with a rabbi. Nevertheless, these yoetzet halacha (advisers of Jewish law) are at the cutting edge of innovative halachic decision. More importantly, they answer sensitive, intimate questions that many Orthodox women feel uncomfortable asking male rabbis. For instance: Does blood resulting from a gynecological examination render a woman prohibited to her husband like menstruation does? Which kinds of contraception are permitted? How should a woman prepare to immerse herself, nude, in a ritual bath? The very nature of these questions makes them naturally fall under the purview of female halachic adjudicators. THE SAME is true of divorce laws. Perhaps the most common criticism leveled against rabbinic courts that rule on divorces in Israel is that these male-dominated forums lack sensitivity to women's needs. They do not truly understand the difficulties faced by a woman who is suddenly forced to raise her children without the financial and emotional support of a husband. This lack of empathy is translated into practice. Rabbinic courts dominated by males might have a tendency to see the man's side in a divorce case. Women might feel uncomfortable presenting their case before such a court. In numerous cases, rabbinic courts have put pressure on a woman to give up a portion of her alimony payments or her child support so that the husband will be willing to acquiesce to giving a get (divorce writ). If the woman does not agree, she is blamed for delaying the divorce process. Invariably, religious women, who, unlike secular women, refrain from initiating a new relationship with a man until the divorce is finalized, are the primary victims. Gradually, women who are the product of intensive Torah education will be coming of age. They should be given a chance to make their special contribution to Halacha in a field that directly affects them. After all, we trust female doctors with our lives, we trust female judges with enforcing justice, and we trust female business leaders with our economy. Why shouldn't we trust female Torah scholars to interpret Halacha?