Prologue for the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe Exhibition Catalogue
“And you shall not oppress a stranger,
For you know the heart of the stranger;
Because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt".
The conversion process is one whereby a non-Jew is entered into the Jewish covenant. The final stage of the conversion process is the convert's immersion in the waters of the mikveh (ritual bath) in the presence of the three rabbis who comprise a Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court).1 The convert's exit from the mikveh signifies the moment that he or she becomes a fully-fledged Jew. Jewish tradition bestows the waters of the mikveh with the power to create a new reality and to transform a person's religious status. According to the Halakhah (Jewish religious law), the tevilah (immersion) in the mikveh must be performed while naked and the entire body submerged under the water, and any obstruction between body and water is forbidden. The necessity of the Beit Din's presence during the tevilah creates a difficulty in cases of female converts. Following their initial tevilah, which is performed in front of a balanit (mikveh attendant), the female converts dress in a loose robe which will enable the penetration of water but still maintain their modesty. Three rabbis subsequently enter the mikveh room and the women are required to immerse again in their presence.
This act, which is the culmination of the entire conversion process, is one of great religious and spiritual significance for the convert; however, the manner of The female converts' tevilah – in front of three men – is immodest and disrespectful of both the woman and of the dayanim (rabbinic judges).
The Torah relates to the convert with a favorable attitude and frequently emphasizes the obligation to adopt a positive approach towards the convert, especially in light of the Jewish People's historical experience of having lived as strangers in Egypt. The Torah awards the convert a status of legal equality and explicitly forbids any harm or discrimination. "The stranger living with you shall be as the home-born living among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34).
The conversion process as practiced in Israel today and particularly that for women is in need of review.2 The manner in which we welcome those seeking to join us reflects the face of our society, People and country.
Michal Tikochinsky related to the problem of the tevilah of female converts:
The modesty of women seeking to belong to the Jewish People is an issue of value that should not be minimalized when compared to other values related to this issue. Who will fight for these wretched women waiting in line and eagerly awaiting the Jewish People's stamp of approval? Who will make their voices heard? Extreme caution must be taken in order not to crush the honor of a woman whose only desire is to become a member of the Jewish People and to dwell in the Divine Presence.3
Rivkah Lubitch writes that:
It is not the rabbis performing the conversion process whom must change the system, and it is not the conversion authorities that need to issue such an instruction. This order should emanate from no less than the Chief Rabbinate of Israel whose responsibility it is to issue a clear halakhic ruling that only women immerse women.4
A woman's experience of performing tevilah in the presence of three dayanim is the central theme of the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe Exhibition and is also discussed in depth in this accompanying anthology.
The exhibition and the anthology both examine the issue of conversion and specifically the tevilah of female converts from artistic, public, political, halakhic and personal viewpoints. This exhibition is a pioneer in this sensitive and intimate field which has not been hitherto fully expressed in art5 and Israeli discourse6.
The exhibition presents a series of unique drawings created with a combined technique by the artist Hila Karabelnikov-Paz, which depict the tevilah ceremony from various perspectives. Alongside are video installations of the director Nurit Jacobs-Yinon which follow the stages of the tevilah ceremony together with contemporary interpretation. The Entrance Hall is the site of the entrance to the entire exhibition – a work of the painter Shimon Pinto who, with his unsophisticated style, brought an unsullied view of the mikveh room, indistinct in terms of gender.
This anthology which accompanies the exhibition assembles essays that present theoretical and artistic aspects related to the theme of the exhibition. The essays were written by different women who come from a range of personal and professional worlds. Most have been active for years, each in their own way, in raising the voice of female converts, largely without knowledge of the others. The sum power of this anthology of essays is thus larger than that of its individual components as it gathers together varied approaches 'under one roof', some of which were written especially for the exhibition and some which have been published previously.
The Rabbanit, Adv. Michal Tikochinsky, who heads the Beit Midrash for Women at Beit Morasha, presents in her essay the halakhic aspect of women converts' tevilah while examining sources from the period of the Talmud. The essay points to a practical halakhic possibility for changing the reality practiced today, a change that many recognize and accept its feasibility.
The Rabbinic Pleader Rivkah Lubitch, one of the founders of the Nigun Nashim Beit Midrash at the Oranim Academic College of Education, has represented women whose validity of conversion has been questioned by the Beit Din, despite the fact that it was performed at the Special Beit Din for Conversions headed by Rabbi Haim Drukman (under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office). She wrote The Female Converts' Midrash presented for the first time in this anthology which also serves as the soundtrack for one of the works in the exhibition.
MK Dr. Aliza Lavie, who currently (the 19 th Knesset) serves as chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women, examines in her essay the political aspects of this issue in which religion, State and the status of women are intertwined, and calls for civil action in order improve the conversion process.
Former MK Orit Zuaretz writes from a personal viewpoint of her experiences as a six year old girl who was required to perform tevilah together with her mother in front of the dayanim. Her conscious and adult view years later, clarifies the difficulty she endured and its ramifications.
In her essay, art critic and gender researcher Dr. Ketzia Alon offers a new interpretation, both as an artistic critique and as a contemporary cultural reading, and sheds light on the gender aspect woven into the entire fabric of the conversion issue and particularly the works displayed in the exhibition.
The curator Emily Bilski, with her extensive knowledge of local and international art, examines the video installations in the exhibition in the contemporary art context which seeks to touch on public, Jewish and gender related issues.
Raz Samira, the exhibition curator, highlights in her essays the content related and formative facets connecting the works themselves and between the works and the space of the gallery.
Thanks to the dozens of people, each in his/her time and field, who took part in bringing this exhibition to fruition. Many thanks to all involved in the publication of this anthology, to those contributing a professional eye and touch in proofreading, editing and translating: Dr. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, Dr. Ruti Feuchtwanger, Hadas Ahituv, Jeremy Kuttner, Dvora Ben Meir, Yoav Katz, Dr. Nili Samet, Moriah Be'eri-Shlevin and Nechama Ben Aderet.
Many thanks to the New Fund for Cinema and T.V, the General Director Dorit Inbar, and
the Production Manager, Orel Turner, who were the first to support the video installations.
Thank you to Emunah – National Religious Women's Organization and especially, the Chairwoman Liora Minka, whose support for this anthology enabled its publication in this form.
Thank you to the Department of Arts, Culture Division of the Tel Aviv Municipality and to the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation for the Arts for their assistance in the production of the exhibition and the anthology.
Thank you to Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, the Executive Director Shmuel Shattah and the Chairwoman Tehila Nachalon.
Special thanks to Arie Berkowitz, Director of The Artists House, for his trust and assistance, for the warm home and the helpful advice. Special thanks also to Shuli Halfi, the publisher and Dafna Graif the graphic artist, who worked according to an impossible schedule but without compromising professionalism or completeness of the task. Thank you very much to Eli Gefen, Protech Integration, for his assistance and generous contribution in setting up and erecting the video works, for his tolerance and mainly for his professionalism.
Heartfelt thanks to all the essay writers, real partners, who each devoted themselves to the challenge and contributed their own special viewpoint. May we merit together advancing, even a little, a tikkun olam.
1 The tevilah ceremony also includes elements of acceptance of the mitzvot (the commandments prescribed by the Torah). The dayanim ask the convert questions relating to Judaism, halakhah and faith. They bless the convert who repeats after them a declaration of acceptance of God's divinity by saying the "Shema Yisrael".
2 It should be mentioned that today approximately 75% of all converts in Israel are women. See: Aliza Lavie, Atzvut Sh'eina Marpa, Makor Rishon, 6.8.2010 (Hebrew).
3 Michal Tikochinsky, And a Woman Immerses the Woman, Akdamot 21, 5768/2007-2008, pp. 65-82 (Hebrew).
4 Rivkah Lubitch, Women's Tevilah – Before Women!, ynet, 19.2.2009 (Hebrew).
5 Several exhibitions on the subjects of the mikveh and religious feminism have been displayed during the last decade. For example: Matronita (2012), curators: Dvora Liss and David Sperber, Ein Harod Museum; Not Prepared (2010), Solo exhibition, Hagit Molgan, Cabri Gallery; Shuli Nahshon's exhibition (2006), Gal-On Gallery, Tel Aviv; The Exhibition Gzera Shava – Gizra Shava (2001), Orit Freilich, Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv and others.
6 Edition 17 of Eretz Acheret (July-August 2003) was devoted to the issue of conversion and examines it in halakhic, political and Zionist contexts however the issue of the tevilah of female converts is not discussed. Dr. Vered Mor's book Megilat Gerut, Reuven Mas Publications, 2010, should also be mentioned as a pioneer in dealing with the issue of women's conversion.