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They Provide a Lifeline For Orthodox Women
There are complex, often very nuanced, rules to uphold, and hundreds of interpretations on how those rules should be applied.
That's why there are jobs for people to translate that legal jargon into laymen's terms.
For Orthodox Jewish women, these translators are called yoatzot halachah, and they are a lifeline.
Yoatzot are women who serve as a resource for dealing with taharat hamishpachah, an area of Jewish law relating to marriage, sexuality and women's health. Though they have medical training, yoatzot are not physicians, and though they are certified by a board of Orthodox rabbis, they themselves are not ordained rabbis.
On Sunday afternoon, three yoatzot -- two from Israel and one who resides in Lower Merion but practices in Englewood, N.J. -- attempted to show about 100 Philadelphia-area women how to make medical decisions within a halachic framework. At their side were a host of health practitioners -- physicians, clinical psychologists, an eating disorder specialist and an adult psychiatrist.
The community health day, held at Lower Merion Synagogue and sponsored by Nishmat: The Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women, dealt with issues like breast cancer, pregnancy, body image, postpartum depression and menstruation as they pertain to Judaism.
Nomi Englard-Shaffer, a yoetzet who works with Nishmat's halachic hotline in Israel, explained that "halachah has something to say about everything," including how and when a woman may use a mikvah, how she may engage in sexual relations with her husband and even what type of medical treatment she should receive.
But certain factors can make these rules difficult to follow.
For example, women brought up in a culture of modesty may feel uncomfortable asking personal, woman-related questions to a physician or rabbi. On the other end of spectrum, physicians may feel unaccustomed to the particular medical needs of their Orthodox patients.
Englard-Shaffer, wearing a hat and long-sleeved dress Sunday, told participants that there are often easy ways of solving such dilemmas, and meeting both one's medical and Jewish needs.
Sometimes, the answer involves choosing an alternate medical procedure.
For example, under normal circumstances, women going through radiation for breast cancer receive a small type of tattoo to delineate the area of the breast to be treated. But because desecrating one's body -- even in the form of a tattoo for medical purposes -- is prohibited under Jewish law, this procedure would be forbidden.
Non-permanent markers, which would not be classified as tattoos but would provide an equally viable method, according to Englard-Shaffer. "In Israel, they don't do any tattooing," she noted.
In other cases, receiving medical treatment may require a reinterpretation of Jewish law.
For example, some Orthodox women might be reticent to administer a breast self-exam because of modesty issues. But as Englard-Shaffer pointed out, "we could also look at it as a mitzvah that we are all taking care of our bodies."
She added that for chaste young girls, "getting [them] to do breast exams is a way of preparing them for later physical experiences."
Sometimes, too, the yoatzot agreed that certain halachic concessions can be made.
A woman who's been through chemotherapy, for example, would not technically be allowed into a mikvah because of rules specifying that bathers thoroughly comb their hair before entering. Women undergoing chemotherapy might have very little or no hair to comb.
Englard-Shaffer suggested that these women, for whom the holy waters could have a therapeutic effect, should just gently touch their head instead.
"There is the ideal, and there is the realm of halachah that we're still keeping, even if we're not obtaining the ideal."