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Make up your minds on modesty

Men always have sex on their minds, but rabbis witnessing women's immersion isn't a problem. Seriously?

I have been told by rabbis, more times than I can count, that men and women can’t be ‘just’  friends. That men inevitably see a woman sexually. And, I have been told repeatedly that I simply cannot understand the way a man’s mind works.

Well-meaning rabbis explained that when a boy talks to me, he is only thinking of one thing, that they are just hardwired that way and so, I need to protect myself (and them) through physical distance and modest dress. I was told that this dress was for my benefit and would ensure my dignity in being seen as a person and not a sexual object.

Having never been a male, what could I do other than accept what I was told? Who am I to argue? I accept that for a good number of males, this is the way it is.

These conversations have played in my mind these past few weeks. Mostly, because in the wake of the  Rabbi Freundel mikva scandal, arguments have raged over the propriety of men in the women’s mikva.

Leaving aside the abuses he perpetrated, the scandal has brought to light a situation that few were aware of, but that must be addressed.

When a female convert, in the final step of her conversion, immerses in the mikva, three men who make up the Bet Din (Jewish court) are present to witness the immersion, in addition to a female attendant. In most cases this is done either with the convert wearing a robe or with a large sheet with a hole for her head, or with towels on the water’s surface. Often, the rabbis are in the room with their backs turned and quickly glance when she immerses in the water.

Having spoken to dozens of women, both converts and otherwise, the overwhelming majority report being uncomfortable and vulnerable even with a robe, towels or sheet while nude in the mikva. At times, the sheet tangles, the towels move, she would have to do it again or the sheet needed to be readjusted. Being naked in the room with three men, towels or no towels, elicits a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability for most.

Why did they say nothing? What could they say? They were told that it must be this way or they could not be Jews.

I spoke with a rabbi who told me that he had performed two conversions and would do no more. He said that he had felt uncomfortable for the woman who had to stand nude beneath the waters while he and two other rabbis were in the room. He admitted that it was difficult to keep a totally pure mind and found the process difficult. He feels an alternative can and should be found.

People far more learned in Jewish law than I am have suggested concrete alternatives with in Halacha. Rabbi Seth Farber writes here and Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky writes here.

My point is not to repeat what they say, but rather to respond to what I see as hubris, a lack of sensitivity, and frankly, hypocrisy (unintentional though it may be).

We are speaking of women who have gone through a long process (often years long) during which they learn that proper Jewish women must dress modestly, behave modestly and cover themselves before men lest the man sin or judge them solely on externals. These same women are then told they must immerse in a mikva with three men present; men who hold her future in their hands.

In numerous debates I have had on this subject and in declarations and responses I have read from various rabbis, this irony is utterly lost on them.

I have heard the insistence, “We don’t see anything. It’s only for an instant. There is no reason for her to feel uncomfortable.”  In other words, she is being told to ignore the very claim about men’s reactions to her body that they themselves have taught her.

And in the name of many women, I say, you do not get to tell her that she has no reason to be uncomfortable, that her feelings of embarrassment and vulnerability are unfounded- not even for an instant. Just as I cannot comprehend how men are wired to view women sexually, yet I accept it, so too should our feelings be accepted.

Let us recall, these are men she might see on a regular basis in the course of her life. Given what we have established about men’s minds, indeed we are told that a man may not gaze at a woman’s laundry if he knows her, how can anyone be certain they will not be having sexual or indecent thoughts about her after having been present with her in the mikva? How can she be certain? How can he?

Are there women who have no problem with it? I am sure there are, and this possibility is greatly improved if the mikva has been built with converts in mind with a specific place for the Bet Din to stand so they cannot see anything other than her head and are not in the same room. But the vast majority of mikvaot are not built this way, and the vast majority of women I have spoken with are not unaffected.

If we have learned anything from Freundel, it is just how vulnerable, unaware, and utterly beholden the convert is to her converting Bet Din and rabbi. She must, by the nature of the process, trust him and them implicitly. Because if she does not, she does not become a Jew.

One rabbi, in a letter detailing the reasons why he is resigning from conversions, takes issue with the fact that because of this episode, the committee being established to review the conversion guidelines includes women.

The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions on women. Is there a role for women to play in ‘suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse’? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in ‘review[ing] the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.

i.e. women’s voices and point of view have no place here.

I have no interest in serving in a system in which I have no input in the policies of that system, am not consulted on them, and might not agree with them.

I have a hard time commenting politely on the irony of that statement coming in the context of women and converts in Judaism and in light of the above quote.

Another line that I have heard from more than one rabbi is this:

It needs to be said that the most uncomfortable situation I encountered in gerut was not the woman in the mikveh… My most uncomfortable moments were when an adult male had
his private parts exposed so the Bet Din could witness the hatafat dam brit (a quasi-circumcision).

Dear Rabbi, it is not about YOU and YOUR comfort. It is not about how YOU see the situation from the vantage point of being clothed and yes, benign of intent or not, with the power in your hands.

And he continues:

And yet, no man – not a single one – ever complained about the process because each knew that it was a small price he had to pay.

So, here it is: the women are complaining because they just cannot accept the small price to pay. For this rabbi, the complaints are invalid because he does not identify with her experience. And that is precisely where the problem lies. He will never truly know her experience. Just as I was told I could never understand the male mind because I am not male, so too, he can never experience what a woman does. He has no way of knowing what she experiences outside of what she herself tells him. Yet, when she does tell him, he dismisses it. Why? Because he cannot fathom it and therefore it is not real. Yet I was able — indeed, I had no choice — to accept that I would never understand the male mind. I cannot fathom it, but I accept that it is real. And the woman’s perspective is just as real.

It cannot be that the same rabbis who insist that modesty laws be followed because men are so easily aroused then claim that there is no danger of arousal when a woman stands naked in a mikva.

It cannot be that the same Judaism that asks women to take into consideration — to the point of altering their behavior and dress — the needs and minds of men, does not require that men take into consideration the needs and minds of women.

It cannot be that the same rabbis who tell a woman to be modest, act modest and feel modest then tell her to ignore and proceed to themselves invalidate that feeling of modesty!

Either men’s sexuality is such that women must take extreme care in dress and circumstance, or men can gain control over their thoughts and urges. So, either release us from the responsibility of your sins, or listen to our voices and stop forcing us to betray those same standards of modesty you hold us to.

Dear rabbis, it is one way or the other, but it cannot be both.

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of chochmatnashim.org She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at skjaskoll.com
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