Listening to Sarah’s voice

There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period.

Women light candles for Shabbat (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women light candles for Shabbat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I hesitate to write what might be mistaken for schadenfreude. Amid the allegations against Rabbi Barry Freundel, amid the condemnation and the lessons learned, a sense of mourning is appropriate.
Moreover, the Jewish world needs to turn this moment into an opportunity for communal introspection, a moment to assess the role of the rabbinate in religious conversions as well as the broader role of the rabbinate.
Many have expressed surprise and even disbelief at the notion that in normative Jewish Orthodox practice, males could oversee female immersion. The inherent lack of modesty on the part of even the most well-intentioned dayanim (religious court judges) of unimpeachable character (some of whom are known to enter the mikveh only after removing their glasses) – is glaring.
There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period.
An early rabbinic source from around the time of the Mishnah speaks explicitly of female converts immersing in front of women and male converts immersing in front of men (Tractate Gerim 1:4). And the Talmud itself (Tractate Yevamot 47b) records that while for a male convert male representatives of the court stand above him, for a female convert, the representatives stand outside while a woman supervises the immersion.
We just read on Shabbat (Genesis 12:5) of the souls Abraham and Sarah created in Haran. Rashi there notes that it was Sarah who converted the women and Avraham who converted the men. This is the way it once was. And it is the way it should be now and in the future.
It may be strongly argued that halacha permits women to oversee the immersions of other women – at the very least as emissaries of the beit din (rabbinical court), if not as the actual beit din. This was the position of the late Rav Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel around the establishment of the State of Israel (Responsa Mishpetei Uziel Vol 1, Yoreh De’ah siman 13). The very serious problems that have arisen from current practice cry out for this correction to be instituted.
I am honored to learn in the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Now in its second year (of an anticipated 10 years) of training the first ever cohort of women to serve as dayanot in matters of marriage, divorce and conversion, current events make the urgency of this program clear. In addition to the dayanut track, the institute also has a heter hora’ah track preparing women for spiritual leadership parallel to the rabbinic role.
It is, however, misguided to believe that embracing female leadership will solve all of the problems of the rabbinate in conversion, sexual abuse or any other matter.
As a core religious institution, the rabbinate, as it currently operates, is highly susceptible to abuse of the type Rabbi Freundel is alleged to have committed. And while there are certainly sick people in any system, not every rabbi who takes advantage of his position is “sick.”
On a certain level, the system itself is sick: The combination of power, trust, vulnerability and lack of oversight accorded to individual rabbis can easily lead to misuse and abuse, even by good people. If women were to enter and play a role in the system as it is presently constituted, there is reason to fear that they too could become its victims (in the form of perpetrators).
A systemic change is needed in the rabbinate, and that change must go beyond issues of gender. I don’t know precisely what that change should be, but one clear advantage to female leadership is that we are not burdened by a regnant model. The female leadership which is emerging must create its own model and define a fundamentally new type of leadership – one that I pray will be less susceptible to the sort of abuse that has emerged in this and other cases.
To return to the model of Abraham and Sarah: The Torah tells of Sarah witnessing Ishmael as a “metzacheik” of Isaac (a term that tradition understands to mean engaging in idol-worship, murder and sexual immorality). She promptly tells Abraham to banish Ishmael. When Abraham refuses to do so, God intercedes and instructs Abraham to heed all that Sarah tells him (Genesis 21:9-12).
It appears significant that the very transgression that Sarah noticed and Abraham was blind to was a sexual indiscretion. God’s command to listen to Sarah is clearly a reminder to men to hear women’s voices in this realm. Listen to Sarah’s voice: whether it be the vulnerable Sarah who is in the midst of the conversion process or the Sarah who is learned.
May the modern-day Sarahs have the courage and vision to lead newcomers to the Jewish people and veteran members to a better, more wholesome place. And may the modern-day Abrahams – the male religious leadership – have the integrity to listen to the female voices which have entered the halachic conversation.
The writer is studying toward ordination and dayanut at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum.