Saturday, 28 January 2012

Updated: A Blogger and Yoetzet Halacha Correspond

Dear Shoshana,

Fridays are always so rushed, so I just sent a quick thank you and posted your response yesterday, but I have been thinking about the information you sent, and I do have questions/comments.  I am hoping to post them on the blog. If you feel comfortable responding on the blog, that would be great. Otherwise, you can respond by e-mail, and I will publish my comments only. 

First of all, I want you to know that I am sincerely grateful that you took the time to respond. My initial question outlines my attitude towards the issue rabbis' roles in stain analysis quite bluntly, and I know that in inviting you to the conversation I was putting you on the spot. I appreciate the integrity you show in responding, and I hope you see my comments as a continuation of the discussion, rather than an attack on something that you clearly hold dear. I also want to make it clear that I view the development of the YH role as a positive one, (as I stated in the comments on the Rebbetzin post), and I support any meaningful religious leadership roles for Orthodox women. 

I have inserted comments in red  below, and am very interested in your response.

Thank You Again. All the Best,


Hi Again,
I can definitely relate about Fridays!
Thanks for your appreciation. I'll respond to your questions in blue below.
Wishing you a shavua tov,


Hi CL,

It's great to see people discussing these important issues. Thanks for inviting me to the loop!
What do rabbis know about vaginal discharge that women don't? Great question. Naturally I want to say the answer is absolutely nothing, well, at least in the Orthodox community where rabbis implies men these days and they don't experience vaginal discharge.
(Ironically, that's not actually true 100%. Many women don't pay too much attention to their discharges which is what led to the story Blusterfly shared and a story I once heard about a women who sent a rabbi a stain and got an answer back, "it's okay halachically but you should go to the doctor, looks like you have an infection").

I hope you will forgive me, but I'm going to start on another blunt note. Rabbis know as much about gynecology as Jennie McCarthy knows about autism. For every rabbi whose suspected diagnosis of an infection was then confirmed, I am sure there are hundreds of unconfirmed diagnoses. It is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible to suggest any medical insight on the part of rabbis.    

What men, and some women, who have studied do know is about the halachot that come into play with bleeding, spotting, and some of the differences between the two. Here's the truth: women can learn everything there is to know about these laws. Anyone can. 


But it's the same issue as so many others. If only I knew everything there was to know about x-rays and vaccinations, and the types of things they do to clothing to make them not flammable and what is in NJ's water that's not in NY's and the opposite and what sort of damage cellphone usage causes and on and on. There is only so much we can all be experts in. Those who study any of the above can be used as resources when questions come up for the rest of us. 

The reason we are not all experts in vaccines, x-rays etc., is that we don't need to be for our daily lives. My lack of knowledge in x-ray technology, for example, certainly does not interfere with my day to day relationships with those closest to me. Taharat Mishpacha, on the other hand, can significantly impact spousal relationships, so it does behoove Orthodox women to gain expertise - or at least just basic competence in analyzing stains - in an area that will effect their relationships at this level of intimacy.  

A couple before it gets married is faced with another one of those "important files", the opportunity and challenge to keep the laws of taharat hamishpacha. The timeframe in which to study the laws and become familiar with the major concepts is short. The couple is overwhelmed by the amount of things that are part of Judaism, an important part of Judaism, that neither have ever even heard of. There are not many comparable things in Orthodoxy, where chinuch, educating children, begins at very young ages. Here comes another realm which would be great to study if only I had the time to become an expert. What size and color stain are problematic? What's not? 

Hold on . . isn't this part of what you do?

Yes, I meant generally a person may say, "Here comes another realm...What's not?"

It's a whole lot to ask someone to learn in a couple of months while planning a wedding on top of all the other things to learn: waiting 5 days, counting 7, checking how?! The education given before the wedding is meant to be an overview 101 course to get the couple ready for a life of continued education, to asking and learning.

So why wait to educate women "last minute" before the marriage? The expectation for most girls going through OJ schools is that they will eventually marry and have children. Wouldn't it make sense to teach taharat hamishpacha classes to high school students? This way they can have time to practice their own analysis, and ease the transition into marriage. 

It does make sense to teach taharat hamishpacha classes to high school students. Many schools do have this as part of their 12th grade curriculum. It is very useful I think, as an introduction. As helpful as this formal education is, nothing can really teach you as much as "being on the job".

However, this may be seen and experienced as disempowering. That's not the goal but unfortunately it is a byproduct for some people. I think that depends on the attitude they feel towards halacha and rabbinic authority generally and certainly how it's explained to them pre-wedding. When it comes to empowering women, I couldn't agree with you more CL, it should be a #1 priority. I like to think a lot of people in the OJ community agree with us. I know that the rabbi we learned with in Israel, a very reputable talmid chacham respected also by the more right-wing crowds, used to say, as you joked, CL, that we should bring in paint samples and simply teach which colors are okay and which aren't. The opposition said, "don't do that, it makes things too black and white and eliminates the relevance of the couple's story." That is to say, that in some scenarios the halacha would be different if there were a need to rely on a leniency because the couple is facing some difficulty. When I left the beit midrash that was still under debate.

I actually was not joking. I agree with the respected-by-the-right-talmid-chacham rabbi on this one. I don't believe giving couples basic tools to analyse stains with the aid of a color chart would dissuade them from consulting halachic authorities for leniency should they need it.  It would just mean that they could then consult using words, not samples.     

There weren't any substantial comments re: the remainder of the original response, so in the interest of digital space, you can see he rest of the letter  here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Cali Girl: Part 2

After I read Cali Girl's first post, I asked her a bunch of questions, and eventually asked her to write a bit about what brought her to Ultra Orthodoxy. I'm posting this in the reverse order - story first questions after, but if you want to read it in the way I originally did, you can scroll down.

Why I became UO

In terms of the circumstances I was born into, you could pretty much say I won the lottery. My parents are wealthy and really good, generous, wholesome people. They are not religious by any means but are very dedicated to Jewish charities that help all people from any religion. Aside from money and a good family, I was blessed with an above average intellect and way above average good looks. 

Unfortunately, money, looks, and opportunity got me into a lot of trouble as a teenager growing up in L.A. You could say my life was a lot like Paris Hilton, minus the sex tape. By the time I got to college, I was so jaded and unhappy. There had been so many hangovers, come downs from cocaine, and terrible memories from all the guys who used me when I wasn't in a sober state of mind. I never got addicted to anything, but my recreational life was one long empty and hedonistic party.

It was in college that I first met Orthodox people through an on campus outreach organization. I thought they were brainwashed and actually started hanging out with them out of curiosity. But what happened was that I was completely taken by the wholesomeness of their world. It was such a breath of fresh air. When they talked about the emptiness of secular life, it really resonated with me. I, however, did not have the maturity to see that the whole secular world wasn't empty and seedy, it was just that the specific group that I spent my time with was. I guess my parents should have been proof of that, but I figured they were from a different generation and that they were just a rare exception to the rule.

I agreed to go on a summer trip to Israel with these outreach people, after all, I had never been there. Two things were presented to me there that changed the course of my life. Firstly, they presented a utopian vision of Orthodox life. Secondly, they sent us to seminars at Aish Hatorah where it was scientifically "proven" that the Torah and the Oral Torah were divine and binding. A religion that was objectively true and produced the best life possible? I was in, and I jumped with two feet. 

I eventually dropped out of college and went to a BT seminary in Israel. Truth be told, those were some of the best years of my life. Almost everyone there was so good and moral and genuine. It was, as they call it, a Baal Teshuvah bubble. 

I did have some resistance to things I didn't understand, like not wearing denim because it was "goyish," but I wanted so badly to fit in and I soon realized that the more extreme and subservient one became, the more praise one received from rabbis, the more one got set up on dates with better guys, and the more people wanted to be around you. Eventually, I gave in completely to the point that I was good enough for my husband, an FFB guy from a big family in Brooklyn, to marry. 

This was my exit out of the "bubble." What I learned during the next 9 years was that there was no more goodness and wholesomeness than in the secular world. It was exactly the same, just hidden. But I kept repeating my the rabbis' words in my head, " Don't judge Judaism by the Jews." 

I also realized that the utopian vision wasn't real. Niddah didn't make your marriage more exiting and women didn't work hard all week to have a day of rest. Rather, they worked all week to prepare for the hardest and most draining day of the week. Also, the FFB world didn't respect my reconciliation of Torah and science that I learned at Aish Hatorah. In fact, most FFB people considered it heresy!  But I just chalked all this up to challenges I had to overcome. 

It wasn't until my husband's affair and the revelation about adultery from my friend that it occurred to me that maybe everything had been spun in a way to sell Orthodoxy to me. How many marriage classes did I sit in in which I was told that Niddah creates marital bliss, I can't even count. But it wasn't the personal experiences of mine and of my friends that proved this wrong for me. After all, we could have just been doing it wrong or maybe our marriages were sub-par. What shattered my world was finding out that during the time of the temple, otherwise known to be the real way Judaism should be, women were banished from their homes while husbands went with other wives or concubines. Throw in all the other Halachas that are nearly endless about women, like this one that only men are generally aware of, and disillusionment is an extreme understatement. 

So here I am, with all this knowlege. Knowlege that in a way I wish I wouldn't have had come my way. That's why I generally don't share anything with Orthodox Jews. Ignorance is bliss. I get it. If they are happy, who am I to suck the joy out of their faith, even if what I have to say is 100% true?


These were exchanged over a few e-mails.

CL: What is sexist about halachic adultery law?

Quickly, the sixth of the ten commandments only applies to married women and their lovers. For example, if a married woman is abused by her husband for years, can't leave for whatever reason, and has an
affair, halachically, she deserves death. But if a married man who has a wonderful wife has an affair with a single woman, it's considered a minor offense and a violation of rabbinical decree only.

CL: Did you remain with your husband?

Yes. I didn't want the pain of losing my kids half the time on top of the pain I already had and my husband was willing to do whatever it took to rebuild trust, go to therapy, etc. It's been 1 year and it's going better than I ever would have thought. Although, I still have PTSD, still need anti-depressants, and still have emotional pain on a daily basis, but it's usually only for a few minutes. If he ever did it again after seeing how much pain he's caused me and our children for life, I'd be done.

CL: Are Orthodox girls not taught these halachot in school?

The answer to this is no way. Everything in Orthodox schools is censored. Girls are usually not even taught Halacha at all. Tanach is censored too. Even for boys. For example, my husband grew up in Brooklyn, went to the best black hat yeshivas his whole life, and never knew that King David committed adultery and murder. When I first confronted him about the Gemara where the rabbis contemplate whether the hymen of a girl under three can regenerate after intercourse, he yelled at me for lying about the great rabbis of the Talmud. I showed him the page, he apologized, and even himself started to realize that a lot in the Talmud could not have been taught by God to Moses and that maybe the interpretations of those rabbis were good for their time and place but should not be binding forever.

CL: You said you are Orthoprax. Why do you remain Orthoprax? Why not go OTD completely?

My husband could never not be Orthodox. So, to keep peace in the home we have compromised and become modern Orthodox. Basically, I've agreed to keep shabbos and kosher but that's it. Even that feels like a lot when you don't believe in it. 

CL: Do the other Orthodox women around you have similar concerns re: halacha and its positioning of women, or does the discussion of women's role with regards to halacha only surface in extreme instances
like abuse, adultery or when trying to obtain get?
I wouldn't say it even comes out in extreme cases. In those cases, usually the perpetrator is blamed, not Halacha.   Orthodox Jews don't even realize they like to have it both ways. For example, when Orthodox Jews act immorally, rabbis say, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews. After all, people are flawed." But if you point to an immoral Halacha, they will say, "Its not the Halacha's fault, it's the fault of the person who did the immoral act." I have to shamefully admit, I was guilty of this myself for many years. 

CL: I'm assuming your family was Ultra Orthodox - were you at a typical Ultra Orthodox School, or was it stricter than the typical schools?

Lol.  Totally not. I grew up Reform. . .  Women with pink kipas and talits, gay rabbis who brought their boyfriends to prom, the whole Reform thing all the way. Having said that, I was lucky to go to a very academic Jewish school and I learned Hebrew, how to read Gemara, Mishnah, and Rashi script. This has been invaluable to me which I will explain in the next answer.

 . . . I was recruited by orthodox outreach when I was a student at UCLA 11 years ago.  But I did spend two years in a seminary after that and married into a big well known black hat Brooklyn family so I know both sides in and out.

CL:  The context really changes how your story reads. Do you think girls who go through the system from the start of their education (i.e. FFB) are similarly censored from the halachas that  a secular person would view as unfavorable for women? 

Absolutely! I have four sisters-in-law that went to various FFB Brooklyn schools and they don't even know non-controversial Halacha. This is because Orthodox schools for girls do not teach Halacha at all! Shocking, I know. When I met my husband and left the BT bubble I couldn't believe it. This is because different families follow different laws, levels of stringency, and customs. In the FFB system, it's the family's responsibility to teach necessary laws, like kashrut, at home. If a girl has a halachic question, she asks her father or brother, not a teacher at the school.  So what do they teach? They teach the stories in the Tanach, in a very censored way of course. 

My background as non-observant top private school student, my ability to read and understand primary texts, my spending two years in seminary, marrying into the main-stream FFB world, and the Internet, which gives me access to documents to almost an unlimited degree, has put me in a rather unique position. Rabbis can no longer put troubling Gemaras about women in whatever nice context they can think up. I know the ugly context because I can read it myself. This is a very unusual skill for an Orthodox woman. I also have a very good memory which allows me to see the bigger picture.  

Your Two Cents: Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, the following was submitted by Cali Girl as a Guest Post.


Everything in my Orthodox life was going great.  I dropped the kids off with a babysitter and went to run some errands at which point I called my husband to say hello.  I would give anything to go back to what my brain was like all my life before that moment.  His phone picked up without him realizing and I listened to him and his co-worker having sex for fourteen minutes during which I was screaming for him to stop, thinking he might hear me.  He didn't, and I only hung up when I couldn't handle their sounds of ecstasy anymore. 
Turned out, it was a long term affair.  She had even been pregnant at some point but he convinced her to have an abortion.  He still cared for her but he ended the affair since not doing so meant losing me and the kids. 
After months of learning to live with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder with the help of some intense anti-depressants, I turned to a friend, shook my head, and said, "I still can't believe this is my life.  I can't believe I have to live with knowing this forever.  I still can't believe my husband committed...adultery." 
I had already lost the life I thought I had, as well as my sanity to a certain extent, now I was about to lose my religion too.  "He didn't," she said.  "It's not adultery.  In fact, according to halacha, it would have been worse for him to spill his seed."
I thought, "There is no way this is true!"  "It is adultery and it's one of the Ten Commandments."  But I was wrong. 

Later that day I picked up a book written by a woman who I looked up to during my transition to orthodoxy, and is known to be the leading rebbetzin among Charedi women, Tzipora Heller, entitled, "Our Bodies, Our Souls."  In the book she affirmed what my friend told me.  In fact, she went even further.  She said that because a woman cannot separate her emotions from her physicality, if a woman has an affair the sin is so grave it is only surpassed by murder.  She also writes that because a man has the ability to separate his physicality from his emotions, a husband's affair would not be a complete breech of the union.
Really?  I would like to ask Mrs. Heller if her husband had an emotional and physical long term affair with someone who he loved and even impregnated, if she would consider that only a partial breech of their union? 

I didn't judge Orthodox Judaism by the acts of my Orthodox husband.  I judged orthodoxy by it's values.  I researched and researched.  I learned and learned more.  What I discovered was that it wasn't just adultery.  All of halacha regarding women, when considered on a whole has in implied subtext.  It reads: Women are objects for the use of men.

Some might argue that this is unfair, since men don't have the green light to do absolutely whatever they want with their women.  To those people I say: So what?  Halacha also doesn't let you do whatever you want with an animal you own.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

What do rabbis know about vaginal discharge that women don't?

And this is where I lose half my readership. I was going to save this post for later, after I explored niddah  a bit more, but a conversation in the comments section  here has prompted me to post it now.

I would love to be a fly on the wall on the day at Rabbi School, when the future rabbis are instructed on how to analyze vaginal discharge stains on underwear. What possible knowledge is imparted during this class that a woman could not decipher herself? If the analysis is based on dimension,  couldn't she use a transparent ruler with cutouts that indicate niddah in size? If it is based on colour, can't women use a paint chip that would let them evaluate the colour? We choose wall paint this way all the time! How different could it be? And although empowering women may not be a top priority in UO circles, surely "modesty" is. It is mind boggling to me that in a culture where showing ones knees/elbows is considered immodest, showing ones dirty underwear to a rabbi is OK.

I feel dirtier just having written that post. But it had to be said.
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