By Dina Kraft · October 29, 2009
JERUSALEM (JTA) — With Shabbat fast approaching, the sun was beginning to melt in the Jerusalem sky when the phone rang in Noa Lau’s kitchen.
On the line was a woman who spoke in a voice still raw from the grief of a recent miscarriage. She was anxious to ask Lau, trained as a consultant on Jewish law, when she could again visit the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, and resume physical intimacy with her husband.
Lau reviewed the relevant Jewish laws with the woman, providing her with an answer both compassionate and in accordance with halachah, or Jewish law.
“At times like this I tell myself, so what if I have cooked a bit less for Shabbat? I’ve helped calm and reassure someone who was distraught,” said Lau, one of the first women to become a yoetzet halachah, Hebrew for consultant in Jewish law.
Lau is the coordinator of an accreditation course for these consultants at Nishmat, an Orthodox seminary for women. It is the only one of its kind in the Orthodox world, and most of its graduates live in Israel.
Lau and the 60 other certified yoatzot, as the consultants are known in Hebrew, have been become accustomed to women stopping them without notice, often with a whispered, urgent question about Jewish law. Whether on their doorstep, in the synagogue or at the supermarket, women have questions for which they ache for answers but are hesitant to ask a male rabbi, especially when it comes to family purity laws — the laws relating to sex.
The emergence of women scholars serving as authorities in Jewish law marks something of a quiet revolution in an Orthodox world dominated by male authorities, where change has come slowly and incrementally. The emergence of the yoatzot — 10 years have passed since Nishmat’s program was inaugurated — also is a reflection of the advancement of women’s religious education in the modern Orthodox world.
For the women who turn to them, the yoatzot appear to be fulfilling a deep need.