After Freundel, rabbi rules on new approach to converts’ immersions

Yeshivat Maharat’s Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox suggests modern solutions to ancient issue of male judges viewing females in the mikveh

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The recent scandal involving once respected halachic scholar Rabbi Barry Freundel has internationally shocked and angered Modern Orthodoxy. However, this outcry just may lead to new practices for female converts’ immersions in the mikveh (ritual bath).

While some communities are already instituting ad hoc practices — including creative uses of sheets or temporary barriers — calls for a new standardized protocol have grown the wake of the Washington, DC, criminal investigation into Freundel’s alleged activities.

The disgraced rabbi was arrested October 14 on voyeurism charges after hidden cameras and hundreds of images of women bathing before entering the mikveh were found in his possession. In a court hearing on November 12, prosecutors are said to be considering a plea bargain. His next hearing is set for January 16.

Mikveh immersion is the final stage in a long process of conversion to Orthodox Judaism. It must be completed fully unclothed, with no barrier between the convert and the water. A beit din, or Jewish rabbinical court, which in Orthodox Judaism consists only of men, must be present to certify the process.

In a halachic responsum this week, Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox, the spiritual head or rosh yeshiva of the controversial Open Orthodox seminary for women, Yeshivat Maharat, wrote, “There is no reason for the woman to feel as though her body is being inspected by a group of men.”

“There is no reason from the perspective of the laws of conversion for the men to be inside. Many women have described this is as feeling of being abused by the beit din,” writes Fox in a lengthy point-by-point discussion of the traditional religious law and sources surrounding the topic.

The genre of responsa is a halachic exploration of question asked a noted scholar. The question here came from two clergy, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Balinksy-Friedman, of Ohev Sholom, “The National Synagogue,” a rival Washington, DC, synagogue to Freundel’s Kesher Israel shul.

In Fox’s responsum, he suggests that the female convert be in a robe and at least one other woman be present at all times. In every case possible, the male members of the beit din should stand outside a door that is open just enough to see the back of her head when she immerses, or if sound can be the indicator of immersion, outside a closed door or one just cracked open. In situations in which there is no door, men must stand behind a temporary room divider with their backs to the mikveh and listen for the immersion.

Fox writes, “It is my strong preference for the men to be outside of the room and I would recommend that mikvaot be built with this in mind.”

It is not only for female converts’ protection and ease of mind that Fox is delving into this issue. For many Orthodox rabbis raised in a world of modesty, many of whom would refrain from touching members of the opposite sex who were not family, having to be inside a mikveh with a nude female convert is extremely uncomfortable.

Israel-based Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim, an organization which aids immigrants to Israel in navigating the Israeli Chief Rabbinate bureaucracy, told The Times of Israel in a conversation following Freundel’s initial arrest, “We have to start thinking creatively so that [the Freundel] situation isn’t repeated. From the perspective of the man on the beit din, for me as a Modern Orthodox rabbi, I just think, ‘What is this? What the hell is going on — this  can’t be happening in the 21st century.'”

“This scandal — whether it proves to be true or not — the fact that it’s rocked the Jewish community is enough of a reason for halachic authorities to revisit and break their heads,” says Farber.

“I don’t want to be in the room when a woman’s bathing. It is inappropriate in 2014 Orthodoxy,” says Farber.

Additionally, there have been widespread calls to increase female authority over the mikveh, which is primarily used for ritual purity laws surrounding a woman’s menstrual cycle.

This week ahead of its conference on spiritual innovation next week on this issue, the Jewish Othodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) published a document of Mikveh Best Practices on its website.

Female halachic advisers, mikveh presidents, and as little male involvement as possible are among the reccommendations being pushed by JOFA. And, highlighting the Freundel scandal’s lasting effect, it reads, “The mikvah is periodically swept for surveillance equipment by security experts together with mikvah employees who are familiar with the mikvah and will recognize if something is out of place.”

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