Published by Rachel Danziger Sharansky on Times of Israel Blog
When I immersed in the mikveh for the first time, on the eve of my wedding, I was elated. I was excited to enter a whole new realm of Jewish life: Taharat Hamishpacha, the Jewish laws that relate to marriage and sexuality. Here I am, I thought, joining the ranks of married Jewish women throughout history, following in their footsteps of ritual purity and spiritual rebirth.
I never lost that feeling of awe and excitement. But like many other halacha-observing women, I quickly discovered that maintaining taharat hamishpacha was far more challenging than I had expected. The rules seemed simple enough in theory, but in practice they were confusing and difficult to apply. In many cases, I needed guidance and found myself asking rabbis for advice. Talking to men about intimate issues, about my own body, was exceedingly awkward. Running into them the next day was even worse. Some women find this experience so off-putting that they stop keeping the laws altogether, or err on the side of caution and become unnecessarily stringent. I wondered then: Is the actual experience of taharat hamishpacha doomed to be stressful and unpleasant?
Rabbanit Chana Henkin and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (co-founders of Nishmat), heard this question many times. They saw many women stumbling through stress and insecurity. They saw the Jewish ideals of loving marriages and shalom bait (domestic harmony) compromised by the stringency and anxiety that often surround the observance of the laws. And sixteen years ago, they came up with an innovative way to make the laws far easier and more pleasant to observe.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin decided to train women as “yoatzot halacha” (halachic consultants), and certify them to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha. She coached the yoatzot to offer women knowledge and tools that empower them to be more independent and confident in their religious practice. And in 2003, she created the Golda Koschitzky Women’s Halachic Hotline, where callers can consult with the yoatzot in a safe, anonymous, women-only space.
The Yoatzot Halacha program was innovative and even revolutionary at the time, since authorizing women to fulfill traditionally rabbinical roles is highly controversial within Orthodox Judaism. The Henkins chose to avoid open controversies by changing reality slowly and gradually. “It was revolutionary in a quiet way,” says Robin Jacobowitz, who joined the program early on. “When we started studying there, we didn’t really know where this was going to go. Rabbanit Henkin, our dean and our mentor in Nishmat, could have said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to have a hotline.’ But instead she said, ‘let’s start studying and then we’ll see.’”
By now, the Halachik Hotline is a household name in mainstream religious society. And it successfully revolutionized many women’s religious experience. “I remember being in a very stressed situation. Getting friendly, easily accessible answers was wonderful,” says Chana, who first called the hotline twelve years ago. When she consulted a rabbi before, she felt uncomfortable. When she called the hotline she was pleasantly surprised to discover “how easy it was to talk to the woman advising me.” Like other women I interviewed, she points to the anonymity and availability of the line as additional advantages.
The yoatzot use the hotline as a way to tackle what Tirza Kelman, a veteran yoetzet ha