Three Men Walk into a Mikwe

Victimization does not empower me

A couple of month ago, Rabbi Freundel, a rabbi from Washington D.C., lost his job. He had clandestinely peered at female converts, while they were preparing for their immersion in the mikwe (a pool for ritual immersion).

Since then, much talk is going on about the alleged humiliating and sexist nature of the orthodox conversion process.[1] The assumption is, that the three male witnesses, who have to enter the mikwe, essentially do the same as Freundel, just that Freundel “exaggerated” it a bit. The immersion of female converts comes out as inherently degrading, as inevitably entailing male intrusion into female privacy, as inviting per default sexual abuse, assault and voyeurism. In this story line, the public testimony delivered by a some female converts is framed as a brave, more or less explicitly feminist outcry: In an act of bravery, they tear down a veil of silence and “reveal” an oppressive, powerful, all-male system, that is rotten from within, united solely by the rabbis’ vested interest in the maintenance of traditional power relations. Righteousness rests with the victims of oppression, who speak truth and fight for a better world.

Of course, this story line works fine, especially in Disney Movies. It also sits comfortably within a paradigm every first-grade-white-feminist knows long before the immersion of female converts gained media-attention: orthodox rabbis are bad, and religious women need to be freed.

Now I know that the conscious and public speech about humiliation is empowering, and this is true especially in situations of structural vulnerability and/or lack of representation and legitimation. For those female converts, who experienced their immersion as a humiliation, the act of going public thus may entail a tikun, some sort of a liberating “coming out.” Yet, the story about the humiliating mikwe is absolutely NOT empowering those women, who do NOT relate to their immersion as a humiliation: My identity as a convert now entails, per default, victimhood, and an implied false consciousness regarding the latter. That is, I do not know (yet) that I was a victim. And there is pretty much nothing I can do about it: my testimony is useless, since I am dwelling in false consciousness. It is explained that I might just have had extraordinary luck with my rabbis, or that my “strong” background enables me to better cope with situations of humiliation, or that I got “used” to humiliation in the course of conversion, while refashioning my vulnerable self to orthodox (=oppressive) standards. I have been asked more than a dozen times by (mostly) secular Jews how I cope with the “humiliating experience of the mikwe” – without having ever mentioned the mikwe as a humiliating experience.

The story about the humiliating mikwe is thus one of the most patronizing, disempowering stories I have been confronted with during the past years. It does not effect a re-distribution of power in favor of female converts, but simply and banally enforces mainstream views about bad, powerful, orthodox rabbis and their female victims: Three rabbis look at a woman in a water-pool – now guess how this story will continue. Right, you are right, it is a bad story. We have to stop the three men, and free the woman!

I need no higher “modesty-standards” in the mikwe

It is important to note, that the story about the humiliating mikwe does not aim at qualifying women as witnesses in orthodox halakha, but at increasing the mikwe’s modesty-standards. It works on the assumption that once you remove the men from the pool, and position the balanit (a woman who supervises ritual immersions) in their stead, you refashion the mikwe as a place of female autonomy.[2] Without the men hanging around, the convert does no longer need to worry about her privacy, or be afraid of accidental or intended gazing.

I am sympathetic to the idea of gender-separation as a means of protecting women’s bodily autonomy – yet I find it very difficult to transfer this idea to the mikwe. I have to get specific at this point: A convert’s immersion entails two, and sometimes three immersions. During the first one, she is naked and only the balanit is in the room. During the second, she is dressed in a “chaluk,” a large pyjama-like cloth. The balanit is, as before, the one who is supposed to check from above the pool if the immersion itself is kasher. The three male witnesses, who are present at this second immersion, do not have to check this. They do not have to stand next to the pool, and watch from above; they are not balanim. In some instances, there is also a “swimming carpet” being placed upon the mikwe before the witnesses enter, so that they cannot even see the woman’s contours in the water. After this second immersion, the witnesses leave the room. Sometimes, one does a third, naked immersion, because the chaluk is susceptible to be a chatzizah (a barrier between the skin and the water). At no point is the convert required to stand in a wet cloth in front of the witnesses.

The scenery obviously entails a spatial proximity of a naked woman (the convert), a dressed woman (the balanit), and three dressed men (the witnesses). Common sense demands, that the balanit directs the three men into the room after the woman is dressed, in the pool, and beneath the carpet. This is part of her job. *Unless* Israel’s balanyot are being serially bribed by lusting rabbis, and let them enter before the woman is dressed in the pool, I honestly do not see any need for an increase in modesty-standards here.[3]

I was not humiliated

Up to today, Judaism does not tend to throw people into a mikwe against their will. The validity of an immersion essentially depends on the intention of the person who immerses. Even if the witnesses are deemed “non-kosher” after the fact (before the fact is a different case of course), the immersion is usually valid if the person immersed with the intention of receiving the “yoke of heaven,” the ‘ol malkhut shamaim.[4]

The matter of “intention” does not relate only to the mikwe, but is, of course, a condition of conversion to being with: In order to convert, one has to intend to be part of the Jewish people not in the nationalist or cultural sense, but: in the religious sense. In the course of an orthodox conversion, orthodoxy’s “gate-keepers” therefore expect one to obey their rules, and I do not see why they should do anything different. They teach what to eat, when to have sex, and what to do on Saturdays. If one, as a matter of principle, rejects religious intrusion into one’s private life, and does not follow, for whatever reasons, a halakhic definition of Judaism, then an orthodox conversion is plainly the wrong choice: Orthodoxy cannot, conceptually, deal with conversion candidates, who do not want to subjugate themselves to the “yoke of heaven.”

In the Israeli context, Judaism’s non-missionary agenda is being challenged: Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel on the wings of an amendment to the Law of Return, that grants citizenship to non-Jewish relatives of Jews.[5] For non-Jewish men this is usually not a big deal. But for non-Jewish women it is: Since their children won’t be Jewish without a conversion, and since they live in the midst of a Jewish majority, they are somewhat likely to find themselves in a situation in which they are subject to “conversion-pressure.” They convert not in order to carry the “yoke of heaven,” but in order to become fully integrated, normative subjects of Israeli society.

My impression is that this is where “humiliation” originates: It does not begin in the mikwe, and it does not even begin during the process of conversion. It begins when those, who immigrated to Israel on account of their “Jewish nationality” (לאום), figure out that they do not belong to the nation-state’s normative population, which is white and halakhically Jewish (and not only white). That is, you come to Israel with the tag of “Jewishness,” imagining you live in the heart of norm – but then find yourself being placed outside the club. I remember that during my conversion-class, Israeli non-Jewish women (with Jewish grandfathers) complained that it is “unfair” that they are supposed to convert in order to be counted Jewish. They are Jewish, a.k.a normative, already. I absolutely do not mean to say that “humiliation” here is fantasized or non-existent – but this humiliation seems very much like the indignation of someone, who perceives of her right of entry into the club as a self-evident birthright: You are a non-Jewish white woman in a place where Jewishness signifies the norm, and every single bit of media you’ve consumed during your entire life told you that you are just perfect the way you are. A feeling of humiliation seems somewhat inevitable here – and this does not mean, again, that humiliation is non-existent here. It simply means that its political significance lays primarily in it being an expression of self-pity and indignation by those, whose social belonging was up to that point never ever questioned.

The encounter between non-Jewish citizens of Russian background and Israeli Judaism seems, both from a religious and from a personal-emotional perspective, tragic. And it is a tragedy, which orthodoxy did not create: The conversion of non-Jewish citizens is actively promoted and encouraged by the state – not by the Rabbanut, or any other religious establishment, for that matter. In 2003 Ariel Sharon founded an exclusive branch for the conversion of Israeli non-Jews of Russian background, a special unit called “the conversion-alignment of the prime-minister’s office” (הממשלה ראש במשרד הגיור מערך). Sharon was not satisfied with the “supply” of converted Russians, which the regular rabbinic courts “provided.”[6] Compared to converts, who do not hold citizenship (=no visa, no work permit, no guarantee whatsoever of a conversion taking place at all), conversion candidates, who hold Israeli citizenship, are thus not in a structurally disempowered position: Once in the “conversion-alignment,” their conversion happens in any case, because this is what the secular state wants its religious personnel to do: rabbis, who work within the state-administered conversion system, receive their salaries from the state. They have to convert Israeli citizens; this is their job.[7] Conversion in Israel means: conversion for Israeli citizens.[8]

To conclude: The current discussion about humiliation in the conversion-mikwe does not only victimize converts. It also circumvents a different, and uncomfortable discussion: A non-Jewish citizen, whose conversion is based on reason of state, but whose interest in an active engagement with Judaism is close to non-existent, will inevitably feel humiliated – not by the mikwe, not by the process of conversion, but by the very fact of being tagged a “non-normative citizen.” I don’t know what to do with this, but removing the men from the mikwe seems more like cosmetic surgery, instead of an honest consideration of a “deeper” problem that relates to the place of Judaism as majority-culture and “state-religion” in the Israeli context.



I could have been humiliated

A rabbinic court that decides about conversions is exceptional as regards its authority, since it decides about identity. This is unlike standing in front of an academic “court,” that decides about the fitness of one’s academic work (by way of example). A conversion court really decides about one’s “self,” in every possible manner, and one is thus, inevitably, in a structurally extremely vulnerable position. Given that the vast majority of conversion candidates (not only in Israel, but globally) are women, and given that the power dynamic of orthodox halakha in religious, political, and economic matters is decidedly one of male privilege, this means: An all-male court decides about an (almost always) female person. It is not a very revolutionary insight that there is room for abuse here.

In light of this, I think, it is necessary to ask a question, which a friend of mine articulated as follows: “How can converts (and I add: in particular female converts), who at the time of their conversion have a dependent status and are in the fragile state of identity limbo, and who are, even after their conversion, forever at a disadvantage compared to matrilineal Jews, be empowered to assert their interests? How can we increase accountability to protect some of the most socially and emotionally vulnerable individuals in the Jewish World?” As I’ve outlined above, I absolutely do not think that the male witnesses’ presence at the mikwe is problematic: at the point of time one immerses, the status of dependency is factually over. The danger of (sexual and other) abuses is much much higher during the time before the mikwe, when still being in the process of converting.

Instead of narrowing the discussion to whether or not male rabbis may enter the mikwe, I think, one has to discuss a re-design of the state-administered conversion system as a whole: One may establish a structure that enables conversion candidates to complain without having to fear an interruption of the conversion process, or one may place the entire religious education of converts into the hands of learned women (this is no halakhic problem at all, as far as I know). In short: One may think through a whole lot of things, but has to stop leading pseudo-feminist and victimizing debates about men in the mikwe.

[2] This somewhat contradicts the movement against the balanit in the mikwe, but be that as it may.
[3] It is also very common to bring (female) friends or family-members to the mikwe.
[4] Given the centrality of intention, a person, who feels humiliated in the mikwe, also has a “kashrut-problem” proper, since this somewhat invalidates the intention-part. In case of the non-kosher witnesses one is commonly required to do another immersion “le’chumra.”
[5] Cf. Law of Return (Amendment No. 2) 5730-1970*; Addition of section 4A and 4B.
[7] This fact led in recent years, of course, to a demise in the religious authority and status of conversions administered by the state’s conversion system, especially those conducted as part of the army-service. It became a minhag, so to say, to advice “sincere converts“ to have another immersion handled by the ultra-orthodox court in Bnei-Brak, which is independent from the state-system. Of course, since conversions cannot be invalidated retroactively, this is halakhically superfluous – but it indicates, too, that “insincere converts“ harm all those conversion candidates who actually do want to be part of the Jews in a religious sense.
[8] Non-citizens may have more “cultural capital” than twenty-year-old women from the periphery, and it is absolutely likely that the religious personnel (the rabbis, the shaliach beth-din, the teachers) approaches them in a better, more respectful way. But in as far as straightforward power is concerned, converts with citizenship are in a structurally much more powerful, and advantageous position.

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3 Responses to Three Men Walk into a Mikwe

  1. The first question that popped up in my head after having read this: Are you pro or contra female דינות regarding conversions, not only in the mikwe but also in the bet din court?

  2. Right now I’d go for this: I am in favor of female dayanot, but I do not think that this is substantial for improving the fairness etc. of the process of conversion. A conversion is basically an act of intimacy between the convert and the representatives of the Jewish collective, and as in any act of intimacy, there is a danger of abuse. Some feminists say that female-female relations are per se less abusive, but I do not think so. A hierarchic power-relation between the convert and the representatives of the Jewish collective is simply intrinsic to the process, whatever the gender of the people involved. I personally remember one “critical” moment during the process, at which I thought: Ok this goes too far – yet this disturbing encounter I had with a *female* educational person. So I want female dayanot in order to improve the visibility of women in representative jobs, equipped with power, placed in the public sphere – but if the presence of female dayanot neccesarily improves the situation of female converts? I tend to say no.

  3. Thanks for the reply… I recently watched the film “Get” and the most striking thing about it was for me the fact that it was all male dayanim who were the decision-makers for the (female) protagonist, they decided how her future would turn out. There is no question that hierarchic power-relations will continue to exist in such crucial situations as a giur or a divorce, but at least I would like important decisions about somebody’s future to be made not only by men but also by women.

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