Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Emor Me'At Va'Aseh Harbeh - Argument Against the Status Quo

Last week, DovBear talked about an article by Rabbi Yaakov Feiman for VosIzNeias. Feitman wrote this article in response to another VosIzNeias that sang the praises of the wonderful Yoatzot Halacha program, founded by Rabbanit Henkin of Nishmat, in Jerusalem, Israel. Since its inception, the Yoatzot Halacha program has become quite popular and very international. In short, the Yoatzot Halacha program trains women (married, only) in Hilchos Niddah. A woman who has a sensitive and personal question and who is uncomfortable speaking to a [male] rabbi has the choice to call a Yoetzet Halacha and get advice from her. If the Yoetzet cannot answer the question, she refers it to a supervising rabbi. Very importantly, the Yoatzot NEVER PASKIN HALACHA. This it NOT their purview. They can advise, and they WILL refer and defer to a supervising rabbi. The benefit of this, again, is that the questioner need NOT speak to a male about a very sensitive issue.

This program is wonderful and important for many reasons. Most importantly, it allows women with niddah questions to be comfortable asking those questions rather than allow them to go unasked, thus possibly violating niddah restrictions. Many of these women would rather NOT ask a male and go about their business than discuss these issues with a man. This program is saving hundreds, at the very least, if not thousands, from transgressing some very serious Jewish law, even Torah law (as in, isurei Oraisa, rather than isurim d'Rabbanan).

Feitman, in his article, is completely ineloquent in his argument. He is emotional and illogical. DovBear made several valid points (Tzuras Hadaf, learning at a shtender, etc). Feitman also made the old and fallacious Rebbetzin argument:

There is, however, a female player in all this, who has surprisingly been left out of the process. This is the rebbetzin. For many centuries, women who preferred to speak to another woman approached a truly trusted advisor—the rabbi’s wife. She will be familiar with all the contextual facts mentioned earlier and is in the best position to transmit these details to the rav.
Except, the Rebbetzin WON'T necessarily know what she needs to know. Also, more importantly, going to the Rebbetzin takes away the anonymity, at least where the Rebbetzin is concerned. While much of the argument FOR the Yoatzot Halacha is the discomfort of a woman going to a male to discuss sensitive issues, it's just as much about the anonymity, which would include the Rebbetzin.

So, what does this have to do with the all-important "Status Quo" all the Yeshivish/Chareidi rabbis and their adherents claim is so important? Everything.

Everything because, as with any change that comes to Judaism, one within the confines of halacha (as is the case with the Yoatzot) or outside those confines, the Chareidi/Yeshivish community will rail against that change and do its best to prevent it.

The problem is, change is inevitable. Nothing, not in ancient history, and not in modern history, has ever been static. Time is fluid, and it brings those changes, and the beauty of Torah is that God knows this, and made the Torah a fluid, flexible document that allows for those changes. The problems begin happening when the changes happen but the "rabbinic authorities" want nothing to do with it and want things to remain as they had been, in their eyes, for thousands of years. Of course, this is just not true.

Change has come, and Torah allowed it, despite protestations to those changes and despite the denials that those changes have ever even taken place. Change has come geographically, economically, and technologically. Change has come educationally. And these changes always challenged AND changed the status quo.

Imagine if Sarah Schnur's idea of Bais Yaakov had been shot down. Many gedolim of the day were against it. Most prominent among them was the Chofetz Chaim. He later changed his tune, but he was initially against it. Why? Because it disrupted the status quo. And somehow, I don't think any Chareidi today would entertain the thought of closing down all the Bais Yaakov institutions and sending the girls back home to learn to sew dresses and cook.

Here are a couple you don't need to imagine: Jewish emancipation took place in the mid-18th century. Change came. Jews wanted less RABBINIC restrictions and chumrahs. More importantly, they wanted to live within the society in which they found themselves unexpectedly welcome (or, at least, more welcome than before and able to get educations and have a wider range of choices of where to live and how to make a living). The rabbis railed bitterly against this. They clamped down even harder. And you know what came of it? Reform Judaism and secular Judaism. Judaism that was anything BUT Judaism, that abandoned not only what was unnecessary, but also actual halacha and Torah life. They just chucked it all. Result: About 90%-95% of Jews are no longer Torah/halacha observant. Do I blame them? Hell, no.

Example two one needn't imagine: The rabbis had a chance to fix a big part of their screw-up with Reform Judaism. Along came the Zionists and asked rabbis like Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, to become involved and help them create mass emigrations to Eretz Yisrael. The rabbis, led by Hirsch, said no. Why? Because they didn't want it to seem like they supported a secular movement, ignoring the chance to DE-secularize that movement to a large extent. But the change was coming! And Israel is now a mostly secular state because the rabbis would not become involved. Another result: About one hundred years later, six MILLION Jews, many of whom might NOT have been in Europe had their ancestors been afforded the chance by the leading Orthodox rabbis of 18th century Europe to become involved in Zionism and make Aliyah, were murdered. Nothing to imagine there.

What's interesting is, that despite exhortation not to deviate RIGHT or left from the Torah, the rabbis are ALWAYS happy to ADD chumrahs and make up new halacha, but would NEVER entertain the thought of getting rid of any of them (*AHEM* KITNIYOS! *AHEM*). But what are THOSE additions, if not change itself? In other words, when it's convenient for them, change is great. When it affords them greater control, it's wonderful. But when it lessens that control or maybe threatens their authority or maybe even their manhood, that's no good and it's unacceptable.

The Yoatzot Halacha program is just a natural development that is taking place at the right time. It helps so many people, men and women alike, avoid making mistakes with one of the three big sins (murder, idol worship, and Gilui Arayos - inappropriate relations - of which sleeping with a woman who is niddah is certainly one). I don't think that's such a bad thing, and it is CERTAINLY more important than learning at a shtender.

What these rabbis need to do is stop worrying so much about these changes and start embracing many of them, especially ones that are well within the purview of halachic Judaism and helps so many people avoid, well, living in sin. Perhaps if they stopped talking so much against organizations and programs like this (Emor Me'At) and instead opened their minds and hearts to some really amazing concepts, such as the Yoatzot Halacha, they'd realize the status quo isn't as wonderful as they think after all and will perhaps support these wonderful and infinitely helpful organizations (Aseh Harbeh).

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