“ And a Woman Immerses the Woman” The Ritual Immersion for Conversion in the Presence of the Beit Din – A Proposal for Review
The Jewish conversion process is composed of three central elements: circumcision, acceptance of the mitzvot (the commandments prescribed by the Torah) and immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), referred to in Hebrew as tevilah (immersion). Women are naturally not obligated to undergo circumcision and this requirement relates only to men.
From a fundamental point of view, the conversion process is one of a dual nature: the first layer is the realm of 'Between Humanity and God': The convert is supposed to experience a spiritual-emotional process, a kind of journey to his own selfhood; a process of discovery and a desire for change. This is a personal and internal bond, the forging of a covenant between an individual and the God of Israel. Another layer of the process is the desire to receive social validity for this change, i.e. admission to the Jewish People. This national dimension necessitates the presence of a representative of the Jewish People who will confirm the convert's entry into the People's midst. It is not therefore sufficient that a person privately undertakes to fulfill the mitzvot or circumcise himself. Rather, these acts must be performed at an official and public setting in the presence of an authorized Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court) acting as the representative of the Jewish People which is accepting the convert into its ranks. It is for this reason that the Beit Din is present during immersion in the mikveh. The moment of tevilah is the most emotional of the entire process. It is performed following the Beit Din's prior confirmation of the conversion and its willingness to accept the convert into the Divine Presence and the midst of the Jewish People. The person immersing enters the mikveh a gentile and emerges from it a Jew in every sense. This moment should be dramatic and defining, and is expected therefore to also be festive and uplifting.
The necessity of the Beit Din's presence during immersion in the mikveh creates a difficulty for women converts. On the one hand, the tevilah must be performed so that there is no chatzizah (obstruction) between the immersing person's body and the water of the mikveh while on the other hand, a woman may not immerse in the presence of male dayanim (rabbinic judges) on grounds of lack of modesty. The practice thus arose whereby women converts immerse in the mikveh wearing only a robe. In this way, during the woman's body is not exposed during the tevilah but rather, the loose robe enables the water to pass through it and the women may thereby immerse in relative modesty in the presence of the Beit Din.
The problem however is that even if the dayanim cannot see even a single part of the woman's body, the situation in which a woman immerses in the mikveh in their sight remains immodest. It contributes neither to the honor of the immersing woman or to that of the dayanim for whom the very entry to a public bath-house intended for women is unpleasant and indeed, a number of dayanim experience discomfort in this regard. Moreover, the convert is expected to henceforth fulfill the mitzvot of Taharat HaMishpachah (the Jewish laws of Family Purity) and to return to the mikveh on a regular basis, and the creation of a positive first experience is therefore both desirable and proper. It is hard to believe that the path to becoming a kosher and modest Jew passes through such an exceptional obligation. It is my feeling that the voice of these converts is not being heard because they are afraid to protest – they are both foreigners and vulnerable. It is our duty therefore to raise our voices and to attempt to propose a fitting solution fulfilling the requirements of the halakhah (Jewish religious law).
In order to reach a solution, the objective of the Beit Din's presence during the tevilah must be clarified. According to one approach, its presence is necessary only in order to ensure that the person immersing in the mikveh is doing so as part of the conversion process. The Beit Din must provoke and raise the question of intent while the person immerses his body in the mikveh. The practical expression of this role of the Beit Din is in the joint proclamation by the dayanim and the person immersing of "Sh'ma Yisrael": 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One'. In addition, the Beit Din may occasionally also ask the person immersing, a number of basic questions concerning the fundamentals of the faith. According to this opinion, the Beit Din is present during the tevilah in order to supervise the elements accompanying the immersion but not the actual immersion itself. According to a contrary halakhic opinion, the Beit Din's presence is required in order to witness the actual act of the tevilah. According to the first opinion, which claims that the Beit Din is present in order to ensure the performance of 'accepting the Mitzvot', it is sufficient that the Beit Din receives a report of the tevilah and of such that it was performed correctly. In this spirit, it can be proposed that women, who will be appointed by the Beit Din, will serve as its emissaries for the purpose of verifying the tevilah. Following the tevilah, they will report to the Beit Din who in turn will thereby confirm and complete the conversion process. Supporting reference for this approach can already be found in rabbinic literature. Masekhet Gerim ('The Converts' Tractate') 1:4 specifically states: "And a Woman Immerses the Woman". Although the authority of this source bears less weight than that of the tractates of the Talmud, and was unknown to some of the poskim (the rabbis issuing halakhic rulings), other sources from the Talmud itself are also supportive of this stance:
Our Sages taught… and two Torah scholars stand next to him, and tell him some of the easy mitzvot and some of the difficult mitzvot. He immerses and emerges, and behold he is as a Jew in every sense, and for a woman, women immerse her in the water up to her neck, and two Torah scholars stand nearby outside, and tell her some of the easy mitzvot and some of the difficult mitzvot. (Yeb. 47b)
This is clear evidence that it was common during the period of the Talmud to be scrupulous about the modesty of an immersing woman, and that the Rabbis were not present at the site of the immersion itself.
It is difficult to understand why in practice the resolution whereby the Beit Din enters the mikveh and the woman is covered with a robe was granted preference, and not the alternative solution whereby the Beit Din is distanced to a place where its members could be informed of the tevilah, hear it or make their voice heard, but not watch it. There are eye witness testimonies throughout the ages from Jewish communities in Egypt, Italy and others of tevilot of women converts before women. In some of these cases, the Beit Din was not present even in proximity to the mikveh. In England, the dayanim stood outside the site of the immersion and listened to the tevilah through a narrow opening. In Salonika and other places, the mikveh was a part of the public bath-house for women in which Jewish and gentile women bathed together. In these countries, the entrance of men into the bathing compound was prohibited by law and a tradition of halakhic ruling therefore established itself in these places according to which women immerse the women without the Beit Din's presence in the bathing area at all. The law and simple general human convention, prohibiting the entrance of men into the women's bathing area, expresses the fact that this scenario contradicts fundamental human logic and morals. This moral insight constitutes a halakhic consideration, the validity of which is no less than a law legislated by gentiles.
In the past, when a discussion was held regarding the conversion regulations in Israel, Rabbi Waldenberg z"l, one of the foremost poskim of the last generation, requested the implementation of a uniform practice in Israel according to which women would be immersed before women. In opposition to him, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose opinion was ultimately accepted, ruled that the Beit Din must be present at the tevilah.
The halakhic and historical sources detailed are presented in my essay And a Woman Immerses the Woman, which was published in the Akdamot periodical published by Beit Morasha, Edition 21, 5768/2007-2008, pp. 65-82. (http://www.bmj.org.il/files/711291833117.pdf) (Hebrew). The essay's publication aroused public attention and reaction to the problem, and it is my assumption and hope, that with time, an increasing understanding of the difficulties, and a lessening of the conservative fear of change, the approach sensitive to the converts' honor will be adopted and that women will indeed immerse the women.
The Rabbanit, Adv. Michal Tikochinsky heads the Beit Midrash for Women at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem where she teaches Talmud and Halakhah.