Its time for the rabbis to defer to women

There are instances in the history of halacha when one seminal event literally changed our practice.

Succot preparations of etrogim and branches for a lulav. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Succot preparations of etrogim and branches for a lulav.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There are instances in the history of halacha when one seminal event literally changed our practice.
A Jewish divorce or “get” issued in 1766 by a husband who might not have been of sound mind changed the way halacha looks at the delivery of gets, and split the Ashkenazi Jewish community. What came to be known as the “Get of Cleves” was an event with major ramifications.
For almost 100 years, rabbis didn’t speak to each other, they condemned and banned each other.
Entire communities were excommunicated, all because of one halachic decision. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t halachic discussion about the way Jewish divorces were effected before 1766. Rather, one moment catalyzed a new discussion which ultimately changed normative Jewish practice.
Another event like that just occurred.
For many halachists, the notion that men are present when a woman is immersing in a mikveh, or ritual bath, for her conversion is an uncomfortable norm. In a recent conversion I was involved with, a woman literally sewed herself an “immersion dress” which would safeguard privacy and still stand up to the strict readings of halacha.
And yet, I am all too familiar with other rabbinical courts that are not as careful about protecting women converts’ privacy. And more importantly, the entire situation of woman immersing in front of men highlights vulnerability rather than sanctity.
The arrest of a Washington, DC, rabbi last week on suspicion of voyeurism presents us with a watershed moment. Allegedly, the rabbi – while overseeing conversions – was filming women in various stages of undress. The episode has shaken the Orthodox community and has provided an opportunity to assess the conditions under which Orthodox conversion take place.
Until now, there has been only minor halachic analysis of the possibility of allowing women to be present in the mikveh during conversions. Dr. Michal Tikochinsky wrote an essay on the topic but her conclusions rely on minority opinions and haven’t convinced the normative halachic community to change their practice.
The time has come to revisit this issue in a meaningful way.
The facts are that while we must meet halachic requirements, we also cannot allow a situation to continue where men are in the mikveh when women are immersing.
There. I said it.
It’s not about my discomfort or the awkward situation of the rabbinical court judges or the woman. And its not because I think that halacha has to change. It’s simply because the normative practice is objectionable if an alternative exists. And I believe one does.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once paraphrased Maimonides as follows: The halacha cannot contradict physiological-biological existence, for if it did, it would not contain lovingkindness and peace but vengeance.
Our Torah and our tradition’s lodestone is dercheha darchei noam – “her ways are pleasant.” The current scandal highlights the fact that men should not serve in mikvehs the way they have been until now.
I don’t mean to say that if women observed women immersing, men wouldn’t be accused of voyeurism.
There are sick people out there, and they will continue to do sick things.
But what is clear to me is that the discussion of what goes on in a mikveh and the role of men there is now on the front burner. And rather than letting the issue simmer, let’s find a halachic way for men to stay clear.
It shouldn’t have taken a voyeur to get us here. But let’s not wait for another one to come forward before we’ve changed our practices.
Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center (