The Mikveh and the Male Gaze

Nurit Jacobs-Yinon's multimedia installation A Tale of a Woman and a Robe brings the gallery visitor into the Jewish ritual bath – the mikveh – to witness the immersion required of a young woman as the culminating act in her conversion to Judaism. However, as we engage with the installation, it becomes clear that this work is not really about the mikveh. Rather, we have been drawn into a meditation on the act of looking and on the relation of this act to power and authority. Ultimately, we are drawn into a Jewish legal debate. Jacobs-Yinon harnesses the history of images – both of Western art's depictions of women and of the language of cinema – to challenge the viewer to recognize his or her personal stake in an issue which transcends any particular religious doctrine and hinges on equality. Who has the authority to bear witness? Who has standing within the community?

The installation consists of several elements that relate to one another like the interlocking blocks of commentary on a page of Talmud. A video entitled A Tale of a Woman and a Robe is projected on the far wall of the gallery. This work relates the project's central narrative of a young woman who, as the final step in the process of conversion to Judaism, immerses herself in the mikveh dressed in a floral robe. Her immersion is witnessed by three men. The fifth protagonist in this deceptively quiet drama is an older woman who serves as the mikveh attendant. A second video is projected on the floor and shows the convert dunking herself and emerging from the water in a continuous loop. Three screens hang on a nearby wall. Each presents a different contemporary Israeli (male) Orthodox rabbi addressing the central dilemma posed by Jacobs-Yinon's work: because traditional Jewish law permits only men to serve as witnesses to a convert's immersion in the mikveh, does this not present a paradox as a violation of the laws of modesty? What (if anything) could – or should – be done about this state of affairs? While the three rabbis differ in their level of discomfort over the situation and in their sensitivity to the feelings of a female convert, none sees any possibility of changing the status quo. The Midrash of the Female Converts offers a fourth opinion and proffers a woman's solution to the problem – this text is heard recited by a female voice in an accompanying soundtrack and also appears as a written text projected on the gallery wall that is perpendicular to that of the three rabbinical talking heads.

Though A Tale of a Woman and a Robe presents a narrative that is in keeping with the ritual immersion as prescribed by Jewish law, Jacobs-Yinon employs a number of cinematic techniques to make it clear that this is not a documentary. She repeats certain short sequences – such as the attendant knocking on the door to summon the convert from the dressing room – and shifts the point of view of the camera to enhance the video's expressive power. A shot of the convert's hand against the glass door of the dressing room is the first appearance of this young woman in the narrative and is repeated as the video's final frame. This startling image of a disembodied hand generates profound unease and brings to mind the terror of the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. Jacobs-Yinon also applies the language of horror movies in the scene where the young woman walks down the steps into the ritual bath and the audience experiences the action from the convert's point of view; here we are reminded of scenes where an unwitting victim descends a staircase unaware of her impending fate, while audience members tense up with suspense. These cinematic motifs emphasize the vulnerability of a woman bathing, especially while she is being observed by men.

Biblical tales of bathers spied upon by men have been popular subjects in the history of Western art, for example scenes of David glimpsing Bathsheba or of the two elders observing Susanna. Paintings of Susanna and the Elders often depict the men looking down upon the bathing woman from a raised area, and sometimes include the men leaning against a railing that separates them from the water, a composition that is echoed in this video. In the story from the apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, the elders engage in voyeurism and further pervert their actions by giving false witness, thus slandering the virtuous Susanna. This tale is the inverse of the witnesses in the mikveh whose presence is deemed proper as they are called upon to give true witness, to the benefit of the observed woman. And yet these other stories and their depictions make it impossible to escape the aspects of voyeurism inherent in the tale of the convert. As the object of observation – by the witnesses and by the camera – the convert is subjected to the scrutiny of the male gaze, which here is inextricably linked with power and authority.
Though sight is the fulcrum around which A Tale of a Woman and a Robe evolves, the video also evokes the senses of hearing and touch. If sight is the purview of the male witnesses, spoken language is only employed by the two women: the convert recites the blessing and the mikveh attendant utters "bevakasha" ("please") as she knocks on the door and invites the young woman to exit the dressing room and begin the ritual, and then again congratulates her once she has completed the immersion ("mazal tov"). The words of the attendant, which respect the convert's dignity and express a shared joy at this transformative moment, are contrasted with the anti-dialogical principle of the male gaze: the vision of the male witnesses is asymmetrical as the convert never returns the gaze. Touch is also associated exclusively with the women. While under water the convert fiercely grips her robe. After she emerges she gathers her hair, rubs her eyes, and crosses her arms against her body. The camera work and editing emphasize the physical sensation of water surrounding the young woman. We hear the sound of the water as it caresses her skin, swirls around her hair and robe. Empathy is established between the viewer and the convert as we imagine a similar sensation on our own bodies. Touch and hearing are paired, as when the convert speaks the blessing while she crosses her arms or when the two women embrace at the conclusion of the ritual as the words "mazal tov" are spoken.

Jacobs-Yinon shifts the viewer's perspective, and thus our sense of identification. In certain frames we assume the viewpoint of the convert, while elsewhere we assume the role of the witness. If we are male, our "superior" position of authority is supported by the tradition that excludes women and denies them agency; if we are female, we are nevertheless in the physical position of a witness and thus begin to question what we see and how it differs from a male witness and therefore to question why our vision or powers of observation are deemed inferior to that of the male observers. And perhaps we think of the second woman in the room, the attendant, who is present but has no standing.
As the exhibition visitor moves across the gallery space from the narrative video screened on the wall to looking down at the floor to view the video loop that comprises The Midrash of the Female Converts, he or she essentially shifts from observing the story to being embedded in it. Our point of view becomes identical to that of the camera. The three videos of the rabbis correspond to the three required witnesses, and now we stand-in for them as well, as we peer down at the convert and watch her submerge. We are complicit in the voyeuristic act of observation. What should our stance be, both men and women? Do we invade the convert's privacy, devouring her with our eyes, or do we observe her with distance? Is this an issue important enough for us to adopt a position of our own, vis-á-vis the rabbis and the midrash? Jacobs-Yinon has taken what seems like an obscure legal matter and has made it resonate for all of us, men or women, Jewish or gentile, religious or secular. At the conclusion of the video screened on the floor, before the convert exits the mikveh, she looks up, directly into the camera. In returning both our gaze and the gaze of the judges she is challenging this inequality of Jewish women, namely that they cannot serve as witnesses to a Jewish conversion.

Emily D. Bilski is a curator and scholar specializing in modern and contemporary art.  She has published widely on the interface between art, cultural history, and the Jewish experience, and is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
The article was first published in the exhibition catalogue, A Tale of a Woman and a Robe, in 2013.