NEW HAVEN – There are only seven of them in North America, and one just arrived at Yale. Sarah Cheses is a Yoetzet Halacha – a trained halachic advisor – and she and her husband, Rabbi Noah Cheses, are the new couple serving at Yale’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC).
A partnership of the Orthodox Union and Hillel, JLIC sends couples to college campuses to give classes, learn with students, host students for Shabbat and holidays, and serve as a resource for students on campus. At Yale, JLIC is housed at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life.
The Cheseses spent the last two years in Jerusalem, where Noah was finishing his smicha – rabbinic ordination – at the local Yeshiva University campus, and Sarah was studying at Nishmat, the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women.
Twelve years ago, with a pool of graduates trained in Talmud, Gemara, and halacha, Nishmat decided to take their programming further. Focusing on the Jewish laws of Taharat Mishpacha – family purity – the institute opened a program to train women as Yoatzot Halacha, on the premise that a woman would feel more comfortable consulting with another woman on these issues, as opposed to a rabbi.
The first graduates soon began fielding questions from Orthodox women in Israel – so many, Cheses says, that Nishmat set up a hotline. Women call from all over the world with questions, mostly related to the mikvah. The center also answers questions by email through its website.
Two years ago, Cheses entered the program, the seventh class of women to earn the title of Yoetzet Halacha. The curriculum delves into the laws of family purity at an advanced level, tracing the history of halacha in the Torah, Gemara, and commentaries up to the modern day. The laws are very detailed in terms of when a woman goes to the mikvah, Cheses says.
“The basic law for a woman, in terms of mikvah use, is that when her period stops, she waits for seven ‘clean days’ or ‘white days,’ then immerses,” Cheses says. “After that, she is committed to her husband again.”
The curriculum also included sessions with physicians, who addressed women’s health issues in the context of mikvah use – specifically, when a woman’s body is not going through its regular cycle, as when she is pregnant, nursing, or in menopause.
“The Gemara talks about all these conditions, but there are other issues today that did not exist then, such as infertility treatments,” Cheses says. “There are also medical issues related to mikvah use – for example, if a woman has an ovary removed or is undergoing treatment for cancer or other diseases. Those discussions can’t be found in the earlier commentaries, but more modern writers, some of them physicians, have addressed these topics.”
There are now 70 graduates of the Nishmat program, the majority serving in communities throughout Israel, and seven in North America, mostly in the tri-state area and in Toronto. They answer questions and teach women about the mitzvah of family purity.
While in Jerusalem, Cheses also worked for Bishvilaych, a women’s health center. As an undergraduate at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, she earned a BA in biology with honors, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University.
Cheses’s role at Yale is not specifically as a Yoetzet Halacha, though she says that the students there were excited to learn of her training. She plans to offer classes for undergraduate and graduate students interested in the topic, and to be a resource to the surrounding community.
“In the Orthodox community, the mikvah has always been a very important feature of the Jewish home,” Cheses says. “In other Jewish communities, there is a rebirth of the mikvah, and women use it creatively for all sorts of occasions. For example, in Israel, it’s very common among the Masorti [Conservative] community, especially in the Sephardi community, that women will drive to the mikvah on Shabbes. People are drawn to it as a natural, very inviting experience. In Israel there are women who aren’t religious in other aspects of their lives, but who go to the mikvah to feel rejuvenated.”
One curious fact about the mitzvah is that a woman immersing for the first time does not recite the “Shehecheyanu” blessing. “It’s not necessarily a mitzvah per se to go to the mikvah,” she says. “Rather,the mikvah allows you to be with your husband – so it’s actually a ‘hechsher mitzvah,’ an action that leads to fulfilling a mitzvah.”
For more information on JLIC at Yale: www.yale.edu/jlic
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