Bracha Rutner has become America’s first female “Yoetzet Halacha,” or “Advisor on Jewish Law,” trained to answer women’s questions on the laws of family purity. She has been employed for almost a year now by the Riverdale Jewish Center – but the press has only just picked up the story.
Predictably, there is a big rush to deny that the appointment is in any way “revolutionary,” or a real change to women’s leadership roles in Orthodox circles.
“This is not a revolution. This is not about feminism. This is about Torah,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt, who hired Rutner. “She doesn’t have a rabbi’s portfolio.... This is an educational function — a community educator.”
Adds Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York and an expert on the Orthodox world: “This is an administrative thing, it’s not a rabbinic thing... 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.”
Well, of course it’s different: Rutner is giving religious rulings, not doing bookkeeping. And as far as I’m concerned, a good thing too. There is no reason why if an Orthodox woman knows as much about halacha as a man, he should have the option of becoming a halachic authority, while she shouldn’t. Men should not have a monopoly on halacha, which concerns us all.
What the Rabbi (although probably not Heilman), of course, is trying to preempt, is the ‘slippery slope’ argument that by appointing a woman to give any sort of official halachic advice, women rabbis are just around the corner. Instead of denying the revolutionary nature of the appointment, he could perhaps explain that in Israel, where there are dozens of “Yoatzot Halacha,” or “Yoatzot Nidda” as they are called there, the practice has so far not resulted in women gaining any other religious roles.
But truth be told, it is only a matter of time – perhaps a long time, but a matter of time nonetheless. As women begin to get comfortable dispensing halachic opinions in one area, they will justifiably begin to wonder why they are not allowed to rule on others. As women begin to get comfortable asking other women for halachic advice in one area, they will naturally begin to ask if it is a cultural tradition, rather than law, stopping women giving rulings in other areas. Call them women rabbis, call them pseudo-rabbis, call them something else – they’re on their way. And like I said, a good thing too.