Modesty, Mikveh and the Female Convert

mikveh conversion in Israel

Mikveh via Wikimedia

Help wanted: Men to serve on the rabbinic court to supervise immersion of conversion candidates.

Producer Nirit Yaakovs-Yinon, a religious Jewish woman, got interested in the concerns of female conversion candidates after hearing about the job description above from a friend who worked in the Israeli government.

Both male and female converts to Judaism are required to immerse in a mikveh, or ritual bath, as the final step toward becoming a Jew. When women immerse before their weddings and monthly thereafter, another woman supervises to ensure that the woman immersing is completely under the water.

But according to Jewish law, the three members of the male-only court must witness the immersion performed for conversion. It’s not enough for the woman accompanying the candidate to tell the rabbis that the woman has immersed.

Members of a rabbinic court ask the candidate about his or her sincerity regarding Jewish law, just before the immersion.

Yaakovs-Yinon spoke with conversion candidates adopted by her learned that female candidates for conversion enter the water in a flimsy robe. She spoke to converts about their experiences. This eventually led to an exhibit called “Story of a Woman and a Robe, which Ynet reviewed recently. (Hebrew).

Sharon Shapiro, the blogger formerly known as Frumhouse explains in her new blog Kol b’Isha Erva that a similar problem exists for conversion candidates in the United States.

At the same time, the Israeli robe is much more tznius [modest] than the garment that appears to be standard in most orthodox American conversions, which literally is a sheet with a hole in it. The sheet is a large and unwieldy piece of fabric whose purpose is to fan out above the water once the convert dunks under. However, often the sheet sticks to some part of the body or fans out in a lopsided way, thus exposing a view of naked flesh to the rabbis above.

Sharon asked me if I had ever heard of this issue, and indeed I recall a radio talk show on the topic a couple of years ago. It may have been the forerunner to this exhibit. Because Israel encourages immigrants of non-Jewish or questionable Jewish status to convert, with 14 conversion institutes, the difficulties faced by potential converts often make the news.

Sharon’s own conversion was unusual because her birth mother, as well as her adoptive parents, were Jewish. But her birth father wasn’t, and the rabbi she consulted quoted an outlying opinion requiring conversion for the children of a non-Jewish father. He said a conversion would prevent problems in the future.

I highly recommend Sharon’s poignant story: Three Men and a Mikvah Part I and Part II.

More on conversion procedures from the organization Itim.

Check out the 2016 fashions at Hydrochic modest swimwear.

Comments

  1. The issue of conversion really depends on two different places in the Talmud, one in Tractate Sanhedrin and the other in Tractate Avoda Zara. It is not complicated at all. However, when it comes down to what to do in practice you need three judges. However since there is no such thing as a “judge” as defined by the Torah anymore; [A judge has to have ordination/semicha from Moses at Mount Sinai and that has stopped exiting since the time of the early amoraim [in the middle of the times of the Talmud]] what you end up today is that you need simply three kosher witness which according to Tosphot can do the shelichut [messenger service] of the real judges that once exited a long time ago. The truth is this opinion deserves respect because it is coming from Tosphot. However it is clear that this would not work at all to the Rambam. The witnesses do have to be male. So in fact as sad as the state of affairs is for women converts there is simply not much you can do. The dipping needs to be witnessed by three adult males and it does need to be seen that she is completely immersed. Believe me if there was a way to get out of this I would know about it and announce it from the rooftops.

  2. But her birth father wasn’t, and the rabbi she consulted quoted an outlying opinion requiring conversion for the children of a non-Jewish father. He said a conversion would prevent problems in the future.

    Or perhaps he was hoping to be on the Bet Din who got to witness her dunking. Since when is Halachah decided by “Outlying” opinions? The Gemarah paskens that a Jewish mother births a Jewish child. If anything it’s the other way around that has more support. It’s possible that a Jewish father is all you need, but we don’t pasken that way.

    • I am concerned that having a conversion in the family will make it harder for the children at some point.

      • There is unfortunately something to what you write. There are many communities that treat converts (and their children) as some kind of pariah. Despite that this is explicitly against the Torah.

  3. I’ve never heard of this. I always assumed the men just supervised that she went to the mikva and the regular mikva lady supervised the actual dunking. If one woman is sufficient to supervise family purity, and the holiness of the next generation, why not a convert?

    • The reason the actual dipping needs to be seen is that it is a kind of act of witnessing something. A woman that goes to a mikvah in general needs no witness.the mikvah woman is there just for things like checking nails etc. Conversion is a whole different ball game.

  4. There are so many things wrong with this story. I’ve found that the frum community tends to treat converts pretty awfully before, after and during conversion.

  5. Michael Elkohen (http://mekubal.wordpress.com/) sent me this comment by email as he got an error message when trying to post.
    Um… not trying to be contrary. However the system used in Israel, according to this piece written by the first Head of the Beit Din HaGadol(which is also found in Piskei Din) says that the woman enters the water up to her neck. They (women) then spread a sheet out over the water so that only her head, not the water and not her body remain visible. The Dayyanim then enter, repeat the same set of questions they asked her earlier, she then dunks(only once) and remains under water. The women then pull the sheet back just enough for the dayyanim to be able to see that the immersion was kosher, replace the sheet, the dayyanim leave, the lady comes up.
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=1919&st=&pgnum=181
    Comment by Michael Elkohen

  6. This seems like a simple enough problem to solve.

    Cover the surface of the mikvah with an tightly stretched opaque cloth or tarp laying right on the surface of the water. Cut some flaps in the center large enough for the potentuial convert’s head to poke out. When she immerses, the rabbanim can simply verify that her head slipped below the surface of the tarp.

    • Elisheva says:

      This sounds dangerous – when you dunk, what are the odds you will come back up exactly where you went in? I can imagine panic if you can’t find the hole again.

      When I converted, I was told to wrap a sheet around myself. I stood with my back to the rabbonim so theoretically they could only see my head. I was supposed to extend my arms and bend forward (not an easy feat in the water for those of us with very buoyant breasts!!) and the sheet would magically float to the surface of the water. Um, no. Didn’t happen. I got tangled in the sheet and panicked several times (and I’m an experienced kayaker and swimmer!). After dunking a gazillion times the mikveh lady finally suggested she witness my final dunk without the sheet.

  7. Nathalie says:

    Actually this is not something new to me.
    However, I would like to relate a story which while not making the whole issue ok, puts things in proportions.
    When we were a married couple living in yeshiva, my husband was asked by the rosh yeshiva
    (also the chief rabbi of the town where the yeshiva was), to come and be one of the three men supervising such a tevila.
    While to this day we can’t figure out why my husband was chosen and not some more important rabbi/more learned man, we got to understand better how it works out.
    My husband said the men only entered the mikve room once the convert (yes, a woman), was already in the water, and was wearing a robe,covering her completely.
    The only thing they were able to see during tevila was the top of her head, and therefore to verify if all of her hair went under water (which is the only reason why we need a balanit in the first place…) . Once the lady had done her tevilot and pronounced “kasher” , the men went out and only then the convert went out of the water straight into her room.
    While the facts are the same as stated in the post, my husband left with a feeling that everything had been done to respect the privacy of the woman.
    Then again, the rabbi who supervised the conversion is known for his care for other people’s feelings….

    (and just to complete the story… after the lady got dressed, the men accompanied her to the rabbanut where her future husband was waiting, and proceeded to marry the happy (now Jewish) couple… all on one Friday morning!)

    • I thought a female convert was supposed to wait 90 days before marrying?

      • Nathalie says:

        not necessarily if the couple was already married, and just “separated” for the 90 days prior the conversion.
        In such cases, there usually is an effort to keep the family normal as much as possible.
        Then again, I don’t have enough halachic knowledge in the subject, but the rav in charge does 🙂

        • Rabbi Michael Tzadok says:

          No you have it right. They separate for 90days prior to the conversion.

  8. I actually heard about this when I went to an exhibit in the US on mikvahs. I was so intrigued by the idea and at the same time put off by bad experiences. I even took the time to look into perhaps starting to go to the mikveh myself (I grew up conservative and never saw it growing up). The idea of being naked in front of a female or a male scared me off. I’m not religious but I’ve never been comfortable wearing less than a t-shirt and shorts that go to the tops of my knees – never got into short shorts). I’m very private about my family matters and don’t like the idea of needing to make my family purity anyones business but my own. To me, dunking once a month naked in front of either a female or a male is more immodest than wearing a t-shirt. Sorry this is a bit off topic but reading about this has brought back all the memories of when I went through deciding whether or not to try and I eventually chose not to because of the naked part and because of the checking for blood.

  9. Thanks for posting this! The link to Part 1 doesn’t seem to be working – but I found it through the Part 2 link.

  10. Going to a natural body of water does not entail standing before a female or male and getting the 3rd degree inspection. It means being near a river or lake. And as for blood–The reason in the time of the Talmud to show blood to a rabbi was they could tell the difference between the five colors of red that were forbidden and the five shades of red that were permitted. Today rabbis look for red. I am sure you can tell the difference between red and orange or yellow yourself. [If rabbis could tell between the shades of red that are permitted and the shades that are not then there would be a reason to go to them. But they can’t. ]

    • Observer says:

      Actually, there are many situations where it is far from obvious that something is , or is not, a problem. And that’s when you bring it to the Rabbi. If it’s fire engine red, it’s a problem, and you don’t need help. If it’s yellow, it’s nothing (halachkly) and you don’t need a Rabbi. But what if it’s brownish red?

      As for going to Mikvah for family purity, the Balanit is ALWAYS female – and the ones who have a clue don’t do “third degree inspections” either. They will generally check your back, and often fingers and toenails, and then just make sure that all of your hair went under water.

      And, yes, you could go to mikvah without an attendant, as long as your hair is not too long (so you don’t have to worry about it all going under.)

      • In theory there are only five shades of red which are a problem. There are five shades which are actually pure.
        Also, the not well known fact is that when brownish red comes before a rabbi he is looking for actual red. He does not care about brownish red. [Beside that it seems to me odd that someone does not go through the simple process of determining the actual shades of red that are a problem. As long as Israel was not in the Land of Israel this could be excused because one of the tests needs red dirt from around Tel Aviv. But today this should be fairly simple]

  11. Convert says:

    This may be true about Israel, but I received an Orthodox conversion in the United States over 20 years ago and the witnesses did not enter the mikvah. They stood outside the room and shouted questions at me. 🙂 They relied on the mikvah lady to pronounce my immersions kosher. The Rabbi who converted me is currently an Av Beit Din of the RCA Geirus committee — so there must be a valid halachic opinion upon which he was and is relying.

  12. I don’t know why they thought they did not need to see anything. There is the Gemara in Avoda Zara which does not mention anything about witnesses. Perhaps they were depending on that Gemara? If remember i will try to raise the question with my learning partner. Or you could look up the Gemara itself

  13. I am shocked. Absolutely shocked. This isn’t tznius and I would NEVER agree to have men see me swim, under any circumstances! Any clothes cling while swimming/dipping in water and it’s awful that women have to go through this, it’s a serious halachic glitch IMHO.

    Also, someone already said this, but a Jewish mother = Jewish child. My father wasn’t Jewish and I got my “verification of Judaism” from the rabbanut with no problem when I was getting married.

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