Orthodox women now have a new resource with whom to discuss intimate issues of Jewish law: a woman halachic decisor, specifically trained in a two-year course in taharat hamishpacha, or family purity laws.
Earlier this year, Nechama Price, instructor in Jewish studies and Bible at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, became the Jersey Shore area’s first yoetzet Halacha and just the second woman to hold the position in New Jersey.
Price works with communities in Englewood and Tenafly and, in a more informal way, with communities in West Orange and other parts of Essex County. On Nov. 4, Price will lead the second of four talks in Essex County on the mikva.
The position of yoetzet Halacha, or woman adviser in Jewish law, was created by Nishmat: The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem in 1997. It has since graduated more than 80 women.
In 2011, Nishmat opened the first program to train the advisers in the United States. Housed in Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the two-year course prepares students to answer questions with regard to laws of “family purity” — concerning menstruation, the ritual bath, and sexuality — as well as women’s health. The first United States cohort, which included Price, graduated in 2013.
Under rabbinic laws known as hilhot niddah, a woman must refrain from intercourse and all physical contact with her husband during menstruation and a period afterward. Often women need expert advice in determining the onset and duration of the niddah period. Her goal, said Price, is to allow women “to feel comfortable to call someone regarding the ins and outs of hilchot niddah and not be embarrassed.”
“There are women who struggle with being in niddah constantly,” she said. “There are women struggling with infertility. And there are ways a yoetzet can help.” She pointed out that some women follow Halacha more strictly than they need to. “Having a yoetzet can make their lives easier.”
Lecture series are an integral part of the work she does in each community, often for women who aren’t deeply familiar with the family purity laws. The local talks, sponsored jointly by Mikvah Chana of Livingston and the Essex County Ritualarium in West Orange, together with the Orthodox synagogues Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David and Congregation Ohr Torah, both in West Orange; and Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center and Congregation Etz Chaim, both in Livingston, focus on general mikva questions, intimacy, myths about mikva, and menopause. The first was held in September. The next talk will be on intimacy; the others will be held in February and May, respectively.
‘A principled approach’
Training and hiring women advisers has been criticized on both the right and left of Orthodoxy. From the right, there has been outright hostility, with suggestions that the role is already occupied by the rabbi’s wife, and that the yoetzet undercuts the role of rabbi as halachic decisor.
Some left-wing critics object that yoatzot are generally limited to advising women only in the areas of family purity. They point out that Yeshivat Maharat, a women’s seminary affiliated with the “open Orthodoxy movement,” is training women as Orthodox clergy with a full range of legal expertise.
For Price, who was already teaching the material at the college level, becoming a yoetzet simply expands the number of women she can reach. At Stern, she was limited to teaching women of college age. “Now I can help women at all ages and stages,” she said.
Being a pioneer isn’t entirely new to Price. Ten years ago, she was one of the first women students in the graduate program at Stern in Gemara, or advanced Talmud studies. “At that time, there was so much backlash against a woman sitting and studying Gemara. Baruch Hashem [Thank God], it’s now okay,” she said.
Still, she was surprised at the hostility from Orthodoxy’s right wing to the training of yoatzot. “I knew the backlash would come, but I was not prepared for how severe it was, and we struggled to find our place. But at the end of the day, the yoetzet Halacha is so worthwhile and something women want so badly,” she said. “Hopefully, as more and more graduates come through the program, it will become more accepted and mainstream.”
Price lives in Bergen County with her husband and four children, ages four months to nine. Most of her work as a yoetzet takes place via telephone and e-mail, and, she said, she never turns anyone away when they call. Moreover, she loves that her children see her on the phone. “They know I am helping other people,” she said.