Don’t Change Conversion Procedures: A Response to the New Responsum of Rabbi Jeffrey Fox

After Freundel, rabbi rules on new approach to converts’ immersions conveys the impression that rabbinical courts overseeing conversions may gaze upon the bodies of females when the latter immerse in a mikveh for conversion. The article quotes Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat as commenting, “There is no reason for the woman to feel as though her body is being inspected by a group of men”, and it presents Rabbi Fox’ new halachic responsum as the remedy.

The depiction of the conversion process as somehow authorizing rabbis to view converts in the nude or to subject them to bodily inspection is utterly unfounded, as is Rabbi Fox’ above comment; this comment is also inflammatory and misleading, and it serves to create pretenses that promote Rabbi Fox’ new responsum. Halacha strictly prohibits males from viewing females unclothed, as specified in many places in the Jewish legal corpus. This prohibition is featured in particular in the Laws of Conversion (Shulchan Aruch/Code of Jewish Law, section Yoreh Deah 268:2), which states that the converting rabbinical court may only view the woman’s head going underwater and is strictly prohibited from viewing anything else, and that only female attendants may assist female converts with their immersion. (Common practice, based on established halachic consensus, is for the converting woman to be in the water and covered, at which point the rabbinical court enters the edge of the room, stands at a very far distance, views the woman’s head go into the water, and the rabbinical court immediately exits.) This law is presented in the Talmud (Yev. 47b) and is likewise codified by Maimonides (Hil. Isurei Biah 14:6). When a woman immerses for conversion, the only thing that the rabbinical court views is submersion of the convert’s head – absolutely nothing more. The statements of Rabbis Jeffrey Fox and Seth Farber as quoted in the above article don’t conform with the Halacha or with the facts on the ground, and they offend the halachic tradition that they claim to uphold.

There are two more crucial points that must be considered here.

First, Rabbi Fox’ responsum does not address the situation of the accused voyeur, who is charged with indecent, criminal viewing of women outside of their actual conversions. No one alleges that any rabbinical court ever saw nude women when they immersed upon conversion. The way to prevent future cases such as that of the accused voyeur is to address mikveh security and the personal relationships of converting rabbis with converts. Overhauling actual conversion protocol does not address the problem – and it creates many more problems, as will be explained.

Second, and truly dispositive to the legitimacy of Rabbi Fox’ responsum, is the nature of the responsum itself. Despite Rabbi Fox being a youthful, ambitious rabbi, it is unheard of for someone of his age and experience to weigh in and unilaterally adjudicate among the halachic rulings of world-renowned, preeminent Torah sages – the most expert, seasoned and senior halachic masters and mega-authorities of generations – especially in the most delicate and far-reaching area of conversion regulations. Rabbi Fox’ responsum also relies on very questionable methodology, such as deciding (leniently) between two apparently contradictory rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, without reconciling them and without speaking with Rabbi Feinstein’s closest disciples about the interpretation and practical application of these rulings. Rabbi Fox’ responsum also assumes that one of the major, more stringent voices on this issue, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, must concede under the circumstances to the technical legitimacy of Rabbi Fox’ lenient conclusion, yet Rabbi Fox did not consult Rabbi Sternbuch to verify this assumption. Furthermore, the lenient decision of Rabbi Feinstein upon which Rabbi Fox’ responsum rests did not endorse leniency on the matter as a routine, permissible course, and pertained to an after-the-fact case in which there was a sole member of a rabbinical court who indeed did witness the convert’s head submerge into the mikveh – unlike the responsum of Rabbi Fox, which outright permits and encourages conversion without the rabbinical court viewing anything. Lastly, Rabbi Fox posits that Halacha would sanction reliance on (novel) leniencies in the area of conversion due to contemporary exigencies. The truth, however, is that Halacha only sanctions reliance on such leniencies when a mitzvah is incumbent yet difficult to perform in the ideal manner. Conversion, on the other hand, is optional and not incumbent, and in fact, due to conversion’s far-reaching and eternal ramifications, halachic tradition is to be strict and make sure that all major opinions are satisfied, lest a convert’s Jewish status or that of his or her progeny ever be questioned. These are the most visible holes in Rabbi Fox’ responsum.

The vast majority of Orthodox communities, which will not accept Rabbi Fox’ responsum, will in all likelihood be forced to reject the Jewish status of those whose conversions are conducted by rabbis following Rabbi Fox’ responsum. Introduction of Rabbi Fox’ responsum as practical Halacha portends a seismic schism in Orthodoxy.

Of course, the community must act decisively and firmly to prevent voyeurism and to assure the absolute protection of every convert and the unquestionable privacy and safety of every mikveh. The solutions to this involve addressing relationships with converts and assuring air-tight mikveh security. Reforming the halachic protocol of conversion misses the point and will end up harming the interests of converts, their progeny, and the entire Jewish People.

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar.
Related Topics
Related Posts