Orthodox women in the Jersey Shore area with a need to discuss intimate aspects of Jewish law now have a new resource: a woman halachic decisor, specifically trained in a two-year course in taharat hamishpacha, or family purity laws.
On Sept. 1, Nechama Price, instructor in Jewish studies and Bible at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, became the area’s first yoetzet Halacha, and just the second in the position in New Jersey. Price was hired for the part-time position by Congregation Brothers of Israel in Elberon, but will offer her services to the entire community.
She is also working with the communities in Englewood and Tenafly and, in a more informal way, with communities in West Orange and other parts of Essex County.
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 the seven days following. 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 hilhot 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.”
For Brothers of Israel’s Rabbi Nasanayl Braun, hiring Price was almost a no-brainer. “It’s an area of Jewish law more easily practiced when women can speak to women. First and foremost, I want to give everyone the opportunity to keep Halacha as best they can and keep it as pleasant and comfortable as I can. Women are more comfortable with women,” he said in a phone interview shortly after Price began.
He also said he welcomes the educational opportunities Price provides. As part of her position she will offer lectures appropriate for women who aren’t as familiar with the family purity laws.
The first of these will be held over Shabbat, Nov. 14-15, with one lecture Friday night and one on Shabbat afternoon. Topics covered will be finalized after Yom Kippur.
Braun has a third reason for hiring Price. “As a modern, centrist Orthodox Jewish synagogue, it’s important for us to support communal positions for women that are within the boundaries of Jewish law,” he said.
‘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.
Braun is well aware of the controversy, but said he is in a unique position as the rabbi of the only Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue in the area. The area’s other Orthodox synagogues are Sephardi, and have different standards. “That gives me a certain amount of leeway,” he said. “I understand the politics and pressures [that can affect other rabbis]. But I would like for Modern Orthodox rabbis not to be afraid. If you believe in it, stand up and say it. Don’t be afraid of the right or the left. It’s a principled approach.
“And if yoatzot do not fit in your understanding of the world, God bless and don’t do it,” said Braun. “But if this is a principle belief of yours, then support it and hope it’s a success.”
Price, who was already teaching the material at the college level, expresses a passion for the expanded role being a yoetzet offers. “I can reach a larger number of women,” she said. 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 wasn’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.”
Braun is thrilled to make Price’s services available to anyone in the larger Jersey Shore area. “There are not many things a particular shul can do for the larger community — so why not?” he said. “Why be selfish?”
Because Price lives in Bergen County with her husband and four children, ages four months to nine, most of her work will take place via telephone and e-mail. She noted that because of the personal nature of the calls, some women prefer the anonymity, while others prefer to develop strong relationships. While Braun said he would certainly prefer someone living in the area, he said, “We don’t have such a luxury.” And, in any case, he added, “Most of the questions I get now are done on the phone. It’s really the exceptional case when people really need more.” And in those instances, he said, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll pay for a car if that’s what we need to do.”