Studying in Nishmat
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Nishmat, an advanced Torah study institute for women in Jerusalem, is celebrating its 10th anniversary – and its unique women advisers on halacha, or Jewish law, are receiving lifetime certification to mark the occasion.

The anniversary celebrations, taking place Sunday evening, Oct. 11, at Nishmat headquarters in the Patt neighborhood of Jerusalem, are highlighted by the granting of permanent authority to field halachic [Jewish legal] questions in family law to 61 women scholars. The women, all of whom must be married to qualify, have undergone a special course involving 2,500 hours of study: 1,000 hours covering Jewish legal texts, another 1,000 hours of review, and some 500 hours of biology and psychology.

A local rabbi said he would not mind having a yoetzet halacha field questions pertaining to family law and purity - but that he had only received two or three such questions a year. A year later, the yoetzet halacha reported that she had been asked over 500 questions…

The certification of the women, known as yoatzot halacha -- rabbinically-certified women consultants in Jewish Law (yoetzet halacha in the singular form) -- is a testament to their contributions to Jewish life and acceptance by the mainstream Torah-observant world, Nishmat officials feel.

Yoatzot Halacha are accessible to women worldwide via Nishmat's Golda Koschitzky Women's Halachic Hotline, 24/6, including Saturday night. They handle questions on topics ranging from fertility problems and medical procedures to sex education for teens. The hotline functions under the supervision of Rabbi Yaakov Varhaftig and Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, who head Nishmat’s Keren Ariel Fellowship Program for Yoatzot Halacha. Rabbis Yehuda Amital, Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein. Dr. Nachum Rabinowitz and David Stav are Rabbinic Supporters of Yoatzot Halacha.

“By no means is the intention to sideline or replace rabbis,” explains Chana Henkin, founder of Nishmat. “The purpose is rather to facilitate the process of questions and answers, to energize the community, and to conduct an ongoing dialogue between rabbis and the yoatzot, and then between the rabbis and those whose questions demand more attention.”

Until now, the women received certification for ten years, as the ramifications of the new program were still under close examination. The decision to grant lifetime certification, Nishmat sources explain, means that the system has proven itself.

“Because we understood the historic and political significance of creating women halachic experts – we were stepping where no one had in 3,000 years – we chose to proceed with caution,” said Rabbi Henkin.  “Now, ten years later, the yoatzot halacha program is no longer just a promising experiment – it is a vibrant reality for the Jewish people.  The achievements of the yoatzot are great and their positive effect on the community-at-large is so clear that we are removing this restriction permanently.” 

The importance of the system was highlighted in a New Jersey area, where a local rabbi was asked if he minded having a yoetzet halacha field questions pertaining to family law and purity.  He said that he did not mind at all, “but the problem is that there are barely any questions; I get about two or three a year.” A year later, the yoetzet halacha reported that she had been asked over 500 questions…

The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that women are hesitant to ask their rabbis questions having to do with intimate matters, and their husbands are often either just as hesitant or unable to fully transmit the substance of the question or the answer.  “Having a woman who is very familiar with both the laws and the questions makes it so much easier,” Nishmat sources explain, “and once the word gets around – woman to woman – it becomes their method of choice.”

“I feel that it is very important for women to have other women whom they can consult on intimate problems in a manner in which will enable them to speak freely and ask questions freely,” according to Rabbi Rabinowitz, head of the Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Maaleh Adumim. “This means that in many instances, a competent yoetzet halacha is much more able to help a woman who needs halachic assistance than any rabbi would be.” 

The women are qualified to answer almost all of the questions; they pass an estimated 20% of the questions on to their own local rabbis for a more expert response. Some 100,000 inquiries have been handled over the past ten years.