There seems to be an unceasing drama surrounding conversion practices in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law. Questions such as who is considered Jewish or what one needs to do to be considered Jewish may never be fully agreed upon within the different sects of Judaism. However, there’s one issue, clearly magnified given recent events, which I’d like to revisit and ask whether or not we may be able to make a “compromise”. That’s the issue of women immersing in the Mikvah (spiritual bath) before a court of three men who are converting her.
I’ve read a handful of articles that recounted the personal feelings of discomfort experienced by the writer in their conversion process. More bothersome than the articles I read was being a personal witness to the worries of women currently learning for conversion.
For the better part of the last year, I’ve been serving in the IDF as a commander and teacher for non-Jewish soldiers currently in the process of conversion. It’s true that many steps have been taken to promote a more comfortable environment (the woman immersing has a loose robe, and there is a female attendant who calls the judges in when the woman converting is situated and ready).
That being said, I’ve heard their opinions and concerns both before and after immersion, and the bottom line is that they’re not comfortable. To do their job properly the Judges aren’t supposed to be the converts’ friends; they’re supposed to be a distant, non-partisan judge. But the masks they put on can be quite intimidating. I’ve witnessed countless meetings between the converts and the judges; they’re sometimes so nerve-wracking that those being interviewed can barely speak- much less picture themselves needing to immerse in a Mikvah in front of them.
It’s an issue of kavod habriot (human respect). It’s a practice that is embarrassing and uncomfortable. In addition, but clearly a secondary factor, is the rising anger toward and the slander spoken about Orthodox Jewish law. At the end of the day, everybody loses. Is there room for a practical change within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law? Can we make everybody happy?
I’ve done a bit of research on one proposed idea that women would oversee the immersion of other women, but I’m skeptical. At risk of over simplifying things, the argument is largely premised on two factors. Firstly, according to many, including the Tosfot (1), and the Shulchan Aruch (2), having a court of three Rabbis present is not an obligation that its neglect would result in an incomplete conversion rather, it’s an ideal but not absolutely mandatory. Secondly, for the Judges to deem it a proper conversion there’s no necessity for official testimony, which only men can give, rather, in the words of Tosfot (1), it’s enough that they know it happened. This would permit women to oversee the immersion and then report its occurrence to the Judges. I’m in no position to evaluate this stance from a Halachik (Jewish law) prospective. I simply do not know enough of the sources. Nor do I have the proper appreciation for maintaining the traditions of age-old practices that would give me the right to decide when one can be changed. That being said, I can see why this proposal wouldn’t bring about change. Not everyone will buy into the idea that testimony isn’t necessary. Halachik testimony is possibly the strongest form of conveying knowledge from one party to another in Jewish law. Even if it was acceptable without testimony, I understand that when dealing with something as significant as conversion there’s a natural tendency to be stricter than we absolutely have to be- even at the expense of those converting. Lastly, for better or for worse, there may always be a resistance, or at least an initial one, to women performing an unprecedented role in Jewish law. We can say what we want about that resistance, but neither compliments nor complaints are likely to change a two-thousand year old mindset.
What I’d like to propose does not change the law nor does it require the permission of a practice formerly thought to be banned. What I’d like to propose is trusted by thousands of years of Jewish practice and seems to be acceptable according to the major authorities in Jewish law referenced above. It’s an alternative solution that, to be honest, I’m surprised hasn’t been explored or even, to my knowledge, seriously discussed. Everyone in this process has been obligated to acclimate themselves within a religious community for months or even years. Many converts have been taken in by and attached themselves to multiple Jewish families or friends. In Israel, half of those in the process went to Jewish schools or grew up in Jewish communities. Their oldest and closest friends are Jewish. If the presence of the court itself is not absolutely mandatory as seen above, and the humiliation of a human being may be on the other side of the equation, why can’t the convert simply pick two men whom she feels close to and comfortable with to oversee her immersion? She’ll be wearing a robe, and all other elements that are already in place to assure her comfort will be maintained. Surely having two close friends who can serve as legal testimony overseeing her immersion would be more comfortable than three, sometimes intimidating men whom she doesn’t know. Even better, I don’t know if most, but a vast number of converts in Israel have family members who already converted. In Jewish law, you are no longer Halachikally related to your blood relatives. This means that the issue of family members testifying about one another, which is not allowed, is no longer relevant. I’ve personally taught converts who’s brothers and fathers have already converted. Rather than three men she doesn’t know, she could be accompanied by her own biological brother and father. Then they would subsequently report to the judges that she had immersed, and the testimony would be valid. That would come with the additional benefit of not needing strangers to risk witnessing a woman reveal parts of her body that are prohibited under Jewish law to be seen. This is beneficial for the converts, the judges, and anyone who cares about the feelings of their fellow human beings or the currently slandered reputation of Orthodox Jewish law. Give her the option of picking who will oversee her in what may be the most emotional and vulnerable moment of her life. Let her Join Judaism feeling comfortable not violated. And do so while preserving and respecting Jewish law to the upmost degree.
- Yevamot 45b- Mentions that there are those who say that it’s only the acceptance of the commandments that needs to be done before Beit Din, but the immersion, while preferable in front of three judges would still be acceptable without them. Even just to be aware that the immersion happened would be a valid conversion.
- Yoreh Deah 268:9- Immersion should ideally be performed before three judges, but if it was in front of witnesses it’s a still a valid immersion.
- It’s important for me to mention that the Rambam holds that immersion not in the presence of three judges is not valid.