In a First, Orthodox Shul Hires Woman to Rule on Certain Jewish Legal Issues

For centuries, observant Jewish women had to go to the only religious authorities available, male rabbis, when they had questions about perhaps the most intimate of issues: their sex lives. But now there is a female Orthodox legal expert on American soil trained to respond to women’s issues such as mikvah, menstrual cycles and couples’ fertility problems. In the past, such issues were dealt with by rabbis or, more informally, by rabbis’ wives.

But Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based center for advanced Jewish learning for women, created the new position of yoetzet halachah, Hebrew for adviser on Jewish law, and trained some two dozen women to answer technical questions related to Jewish laws on women’s issues. Most of the women trained by Nishmat in the last six years now serve in Israel. Bracha Rutner, 28, hired in September without fanfare by the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue in New York, is the first yoetzet halachah formally hired by a synagogue in this country. “I know I am paving the way,” Rutner said on a recent Friday morning, sitting in the study of the rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, Jonathan Rosenblatt.

Speaking quietly, Rutner is the model of a young, Orthodox wife: a hat covers her hair, long sleeves cover her arms. A day school graduate from Silver Spring, Md., she spent the past two years at Nishmat’s center in Israel studying for her new position. Rutner’s new role is part of an increasingly public conversation that observant women are beginning to have about women’s issues in Judaism. The Israeli documentary film “Tehora,” which opened a few months ago in New York, helped spur the discussion. And a recent report by psychologist Michelle Friedman documenting Orthodox women’s feelings about sexuality and the Jewish legal system that regulates it has deepened the discourse. “I think it’s very significant,” Carol Kaufman Newman, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said of Rutner’s position. “I think halachah will be better served by women being able to speak to women.”

“We certainly support women in leadership positions,” she said, voicing “extreme excitement that a rabbi of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature would hire someone in this position.” Officials at the Riverdale Jewish Center are playing down the move. “This is not a revolution. This is not about feminism. This is about Torah,” said Rosenblatt, who has been rabbi at the Jewish Center for 19 years. “I don’t think of myself as an innovator. I’m just a country rabbi. I’m not Branch Rickey.” Rickey was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who broke baseball’s color line by hiring Jackie Robinson. Rosenblatt, who met Rutner last year in Jerusalem, decided to let her join the synagogue’s educational staff without the glare of publicity, despite the historic nature of Rutner’s job. He wanted to see if it succeeded, if the community accepted her, if women called her.

The answer? Yes on all counts, he said. Now he and Rutner feel comfortable going public. Rutner, who has taken part in community forums over the past several months, was slated to be part of a all-female “rebbetzins panel” during the annual conference of the Rabbinical Council of America June 2-4 in New York. A graduate of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, Rutner said she always wanted to be a teacher. Then she heard about the Nishmat program. “I thought it was important to help people improve their level of observance,” she said.

A yoetzet halachah has more specialized duties and training than a congregational intern, a pseudo-rabbinic position that traditionally has been reserved for males in the Orthodox community. Recently, women congregational interns were hired at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Lincoln Square Synagogue, both in New York. Congregational interns preach sermons, perform chaplaincy duties and counsel congregants. “She doesn’t have a rabbi’s portfolio,” Rosenblatt said. “This is an educational function, a community educator.”

“Our shul is a teaching shul,” like a teaching hospital, he said. The Riverdale Jewish Center has four rabbinic interns, more than any congregation in the country, Rosenblatt said. “When I choose interns, I choose for character,” the rabbi said. When Rosenblatt met Rutner at Nishmat, “I did not test her about any of her expertise. I was looking for character,” he said. The rabbi was satisfied. He already knew of Nishmat’s reputation for academic excellence. Women there are trained in Jewish legal issues related to women by rabbis and experts in modern medicine and psychology, including gynecology, infertility, women’s health, family dynamics and sexuality.

“This is a new role that we created,” said Chana Henkin, Nishmat’s dean. “There’s a tremendous need. The time has come. There are questions that are going unanswered.” Nishmat began its yoetzet halachah program six years ago. “It’s on exactly the same level as rabbinical training,” Henkin said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. It’s also an accepted part of Israel’s modern Orthodox community, she said. “Time after time rabbis come up to me and congratulate me on the program,” she said. Now all eyes are on Rutner’s success in the United States.

“For many women in the community,” Henkin said, “Bracha represents both a role model and a validation of their role as women.” When Rutner first came to Riverdale, she wondered if women who didn’t know her would call with questions. But the calls came quickly, and often.

“It shows how important taharat hamishpacha is for Judaism,” Rutner said, using the Hebrew term for family purity, or laws relating to sex, the mikvah and the menstrual cycle.

Rutner gets calls from women, mostly young, who are embarrassed to discuss intimate matters with a man, or who had adopted stringencies that hurt their reproductive chances, she said. She told a story about one woman who had been married for two years but had not conceived, despite her best efforts. She followed Rutner’s advice and became pregnant two months later. Rutner has been accepted in the congregation because of her professionalism and because of the rabbi’s efforts in explaining what a yoetzet halachah does, said David Sable, a lifelong member of the synagogue and its current board chairman.

“There wasn’t a murmur” against the hiring, Sable said. In addition to a letter Rosenblatt sent to members introducing Rutner, the rabbi spoke about her role several times from the pulpit. “It was an understood and accepted thing from the start,” the rabbi said. “Women use it, and that’s the end of it. I hear the buzz among the young women: ‘If you have a question, why wouldn’t you use her?’ ” In hiring Rutner, the synagogue recognized that it was taking a step that would aid the observance of family purity laws, Rosenblatt said. He had suspected there were women in his congregation who hadn’t contacted him with questions because of their personal nature.

Rosenblatt said he didn’t need a focus group to determine that many women would feel more comfortable dealing with another woman, Rabbi Rosenblatt said. In his letter to the congregation, the rabbi wrote, “In an age when women have the option to consult female physicians in areas where modesty might make them reticent, I feel it is imperative that barriers of embarrassment be removed from these observances of the Torah.”

While some view the establishment of this new role as part of a revolution in Orthodox women’s leadership, others downplay its significance.

“Yes, it’s true that there are issues that women are comfortable dealing with women rather than with rabbis,” said Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, who is spending this semester on a fellowship at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. But Heilman, an expert on contemporary Orthodoxy, said he doesn’t view a synagogue engaging a yoetzet halachah “as a significant innovation.”

“It speaks much more to modern America,” to the progressive nature of the modern Orthodox community, he said, particularly in a flourishing neighborhood like Riverdale, than to any religious exigencies. “This is an administrative thing, it’s not a rabbinic thing,” Heilman said. “I don’t know that it’s different than having a woman who is an assistant to the rabbi” and handles certain educational and administrative duties, he said. Rosenblatt said some rabbis have called expressing an interest in the program. “Riverdale is a visible community,” he said. “When something happens in Riverdale, soon the world knows about it.”