When a Modest Proposal is Unreasonable

Mikve_naia_3EnglishConversion to Judaism involves, after being screened and found to convincingly desire to accept the Yoke of Heaven and the Yoke of Mitsvot, having studied enough to know and understand what that involves, and living the life in a manner that projects confidence that one will continue living loyally according to these principles and commitments, to then declare one’s commitment before a rabbincal court, and to immerse oneself in a mikveh in presence of such a court. Before dipping, men must also undergo circumcision, or, if already sufficiently medically circumcised, have a drop of blood extracted in lieu of circumcision. The procedure is otherwise identical for men and women, though men immerse themselves naked, while women do so in a manner as to make this encounter as modestly as possible. This means that she will be dressed in a dark, somewhat heavy but loose robe, enter the water, and only once in the mikveh will the rabbinical judges enter, remain at a distance, conduct the requisite brief conversation, and see her head disappear under the water.

Typically, the rabbinical judges remain at the door, quite far from the actual mikveh, though this does also depend on the design of the room. Nonetheless, Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky finds that some judges do come in into the room proper, and that some women find that insensitive. She has therefore  written A Modest Proposal for Women’s Conversion in which she revives an argument she first proposed in the journal Akdamut Milin in 2007 (article link). According to her, the judges don’t need to be there at all. She does raise some valid ponts, but regarding her main point, she is wrong and she knows it.

The article is somewhat misleading. Though she does conclude her Hebrew article as she claims she does, in reality, her conclusions are based on rather flimsy grounds, as the sources she cites, indicate. Essentially, she surveys two views of whether the beit din needs to be present for the conversion to be valid, and also notes that even those who consider the absence of the beit din to not invalidate the conversion, still require such presence a priori. I.e. no one holds that it isn’t necessary; the only disagreement regards the consequences when the law was not followed to a T.

So she wants to overturn what has become the consensus view, as represented by Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss (their responsa are cited right there in her Hebrew article). Well she’s up against a formidable halakhic wall, and that is not how we proceed in halakha. Furthermore, she fails to address the $64000 question: considering how highly we hold the value of modesty, why are many poskim still of the opinion that nonetheless, the beit din’s presence at the mikve is indispensable? The answer is obvious: since they hold the conversion would otherwise be invalid, to declare her Jewish when she is really still a gentile causes irreparable halakhic damage, as she and all her future descendants on the female line will remain non Jews until they convert in a valid manner, and is the delivery of a faulty service to the woman who erroneously is led to believe by advocates that she is Jewish, when according to many opinions she remains a perfectly kosher gentile who can eat pork to her heart’s content.

She does also offer other solutions, but the more acceptable they are, the less revolutionary and noteworthy. The most relevant part of her article is the beginning, where she admits that many dayanim are indeed sensitive, and witness the immersion in the mikve from the doorway, seeing just her head disappearing under water.

mikwa IGB 1_01Her idea to make the tevila more sensitive is already standard in many batei din, as she points out in the beginning of the article.

In Basel, where I was the senior rabbi, our mikveh’s design (pictured) was especially adapted for giyurim of women, as follows: the women enter the mikveh from their bathrooms, through a door at the far end of the room. That is where the stairs are located. There is another door through which the female mikveh attendant enters, and from there, she is close to the deep part of the mikveh. Thus, when the woman is in the deep part of the mikveh, close to the wall, and the dayanim are in the doorway, they can just see her head and the surface of the water. Before letting the dayanim in, the attendant checks until where they can advance. And the woman is in that thick, loose tevila gown (we used a surgical gown with the wristbands cut off), anyway.

I see no objections to adopting these kinds of existing policies, and I advocate them, too, but there is nothing revolutionary about THAT.

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2 Responses to When a Modest Proposal is Unreasonable

  1. […] like to address one of those articles, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts by Bethany S. Mandel. In a different post, I address A Modest Proposal for Women’s Conversion by Michal […]

  2. […] Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change ▪ Folger: When a Modest Proposal is Unreasonable ▪ Folger: Respecting, Caring for and Helping the Convert ▪ For prospective Orthodox converts, […]

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