Everyone knows we’re not allowed to kill, right? After all, it’s one of the “Big Ten” commandments.
What we’re not allowed to do is murder. Sometimes we actually have to kill. For example, if a violent person is pursuing an innocent victim with the intention of murdering him, we’re supposed to kill the pursuer if that’s what it takes to save the endangered party. So sometimes we may not kill and other times we may or even must kill. Context is everything.
There are innumerable cases where certain situations call for actions that go counter to the norm. Here are just a few more examples:
* We’re not allowed to willfully injure ourselves or others. Nevertheless, we are obligated to perform bris milah (circumcision);
* Marrying a brother’s wife is perpetually prohibited as one of the arayos (incestuous relationships) – unless the brother died and left no children. Then the act is not only permitted but meritorious;
* Sometimes we must eat – such as matzah and maror on Pesach night. Other times we are forbidden to eat – such as on Yom Kippur;
* We’re not allowed to drive or use the phone on Shabbos but if someone requires urgent medical attention, we are required to do exactly that;
* Men may not shave with a razor but certain situations – such as being a nazir (a nazirite) – required a man to do that very thing;
* We may not wear garments containing shaatnez, a combination of wool and linen. Nevertheless, several of the garments worn by the kohanim (priests) in the Temple required both wool and linen.
These dichotomies may make it seem as if the rules are inconsistent but they aren’t. As we said, context is everything. The same G-d Who says “don’t do that” also says “except in the following circumstance.”
So why am I telling you this?
Because of Rabbi Barry Freundel.
In light of the Freundel case, in which a rabbi abused his authority in order to surreptitiously videotape women in the mikvah, people are calling out for changes in mikvah protocols. Some ideas are sound, others are more alarmist and one idea is just wrong.
If a community wants to enact a rule that no man – including the rabbi – can enter the facility unless accompanied by a woman, that’s their prerogative. If a mikvah wants to hire a female custodian, they can certainly argue a good case for it. But the idea that men can be removed from the mikvah portion of a woman’s conversion process? It doesn’t make any sense.
In a previous article, I wrote about how some people think that Orthodox Jews are obsessed with tzniyus (modesty). In a different article, I wrote about how some people think that Judaism is too stringent, then they turn around and say that we allow ourselves too many leniencies. That’s what’s going on here. “The rabbis” (it’s always some nebulous collective) “tell everyone to cover up their knees, elbows and collarbones but then they’re in the room when the woman immerses!” Intellectually, it seems inconsistent. But remember, context is everything. The same G-d Whose will we are endeavoring to fulfill by doing one thing under normal circumstances is the One Whose will we are trying to meet by doing something different in this one specific scenario. Under normal circumstances, men in the mikvah would be highly inappropriate. These are not normal circumstances.
It has been proposed that the beis din (Jewish court) of three men wait outside while the female convert immerses, relying on the testimony of female attendants. This might be fine if the beis din’s presence were a custom, a stringency or a modern innovation, but it’s not. It’s an inherent and indispensible component of the conversion process:
* The Talmud (Yevamos 47b) says that female attendants see that a female convert enters the mikvah until the water reaches her neck, at which point the beis din enters and informs the woman about various mitzvos.
* The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:3) says that all the stages of conversion, including the immersion, must be performed by day and in the presence of the beis din.
* The Rambam (Hilchos Issurei Biah 14:6) says that women position a female convert in the water up to her neck while the beis din waits outside. They then inform her about various mitzvos while she is sitting in the water. She then immerses in their presence, after which they turn and exit so that they won’t see her when she ascends from the water.
We get that it’s a departure from the norm but it’s what the halacha requires. Every step is taken to ensure the woman’s modesty within those parameters. Pretty much the only thing that can be seen is the top of the woman’s head and maybe her shoulders. That’s more than is normally permitted but it’s still relatively tame.
There is the feeling of vulnerability on the woman’s part. A woman may also have that feeling at the doctor’s office. This is how one convert I know described it. Immersing in front of the beis din was not something she particularly wanted to do but she wanted to convert and that was the process.
As with so many other things, circumstances sometimes require us to act counter to our standard operating procedures.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.