Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values
Immersion, Dignity, Power, Presence and Gender:
A Tale of Female Conversion in Five Parts

Recent events have raised many questions about conversion, ethics, power structures and the state
of the American rabbinate. But at the heart of the storm is a story about men empowered to have
supervisory control over women’s exposed bodies as part of the process of conversion. Even
without the scandals and abuses of power, many reasonable people have asked: Why are women
immersing in the nude in the presence of male rabbis in order to become Jews? How prevalent is
this practice? And what are some possible pathways forward for thinking about these issues
differently from within the discourse of Jewish law? What follows is an effort to give an overview of
the core issues involved and to suggest some different ways of thinking about this topic.

Introduction—Black-letter law
A simple reading of the Shulhan Arukh explains how and why we have a situation where the bodies
of female converts would be exposed in the presence of a court of three men. The components are
as follows:
‫ב‬:‫שו"ע יורה דעה רסח‬
‫עומדים על גביו ומודיעים אותו מקצת מצות קלות‬...‫ושלשה‬...‫מטבילין אותו טבילה הוגנת בלא חציצה‬...
,‫ נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צוארה‬,‫ ואם היתה אשה‬.‫ והוא עומד במים‬,‫ומקצת מצות חמורות פעם שנייה‬
‫ ואח"כ טובלת בפניהם והם‬,‫ והיא יושבת במים‬,‫ ומודיעין אותה מקצת מצות קלות וחמורות‬,‫והדיינים מבחוץ‬
...‫ כדי שלא יראו אותה כשתעלה מהמים‬,‫מחזירים פניהם ויוצאין‬
‫א‬:‫שו"ע יורה דעה קצח‬
...‫ ואפילו כל שהוא‬.‫צריכה שתטבול כל גופה בפעם אחת; לפיכך צריך שלא יהיה עליה שום דבר החוצץ‬
‫ג‬:‫שו"ע יורה דעה רסח‬
...‫ צריך שיהיו בג' הכשרים לדון‬,‫ בין להודיעו המצות לקבלם בין המילה בין הטבילה‬,‫כל ענייני הגר‬
‫ד‬:‫שו"ע חושן משפט ז‬
.‫אשה פסולה לדון‬
Shulhan Arukh YD 268:2
…We immerse the convert with a proper immersion without any barriers between the body
and the water…and three men…stand above him and inform him of a selection of less and
more severe mitzvot a second time, while he stands in the water. In the case of a woman,
women place her in the water up to her neck, and the judges stand outside and inform her of
a selection of less and more severe mitzvot while she sits in the water. And then she

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

immerses in their presence and they avert their faces and leave, so that they will not see her
when she comes up out of the water…
Shulhan Arukh YD 198:1
[A niddah] must immerse her entire body all at once. Therefore there must not even be the
slightest barrier between her and the water…
Shulhan Arukh YD 268:3
All matters related to the convert, whether informing him of the mitzvot so that he will accept
them, or the circumcision or the immersion, must be in the presence of three who are valid
to serve as judges…
Shulhan Arukh HM 7:4
A woman is invalid to serve as a judge.

The cumulative effect of these passages is that a female convert must immerse all at once in water,
naked, in the presence of three men, who function as a court. Our job is to break down this picture
into its components, to understand how these laws came about, to identify the values underlying
them, to probe them for nuance and complexity and to see how they might be applied in our own
day.

Part I: Immersion—Why do converts immerse in water?
One of the most basic question surrounding conversion is: why is immersion a part of this process
at all? How do we know that water plays a key role in becoming a Jew?
Immersion, in Jewish practice, is an ancient and widespread mode of bodily purification from ritual
impurities. Its metaphoric application to the context of conversion plays out gradually over time in
rabbinic sources.
Mishnah Pesahim 8:8 features Beit Shammai discussing immersion in the context of a convert
who converts on the 14th of Nisan and then wishes to eat the Pesah offering that night. But it is far
from clear that the immersion there has anything to do with the conversion, as opposed to the
release from impurity required to eat the Pesah. [See the parallel beginning of the Mishnah there:
‫אונן טובל ואוכל את פסחו לערב‬, where the immersion clearly has nothing to do with conversion to
Judaism.] If anything, it seems like Beit Shammai are unaware of a specific ritual of immersion that is
part of the conversion process.
Indeed, in a discussion of male conversion, R. Eliezer is cited in Yerushalmi Kiddushin 3:12, 64d as
saying that in any case where either circumcision or immersion failed to happen, ‫הכל הולך אחר‬

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

‫מילה‬/“everything follows circumcision.” This indicates an awareness of immersion as a potential
part of conversion and may already indicate a preference for including it, but is clear that a Jewish
man can become a Jew without immersing. This contrasts with circumcision, which is nonnegotiable. [It is not clear from this text alone what R. Eliezer would say about a female convert.]
R. Yehoshua, by contrast, says ‫אף הטבילה מעכבת‬/”immersion is also non-negotiable”, thus asserting
the centrality of immersion for conversion as well.
Despite this somewhat shaky origin for immersion as a rite of passage, R. Yehoshua’s position wins
out over time. We begin to see the crystallization of the dyad of circumcision and immersion in a
range of sources, most prominently the baraita on Yevamot 47a-b, which clearly features both
physical processes in series, as well as in the statement of R. Yohanan on 46b: ‫לעולם אינו גר עד שימול‬
‫ויטבול‬/“a person can never be a convert unless they are circumcised and immersed”. In the Bavli,
this view is attributed to ‫חכמים‬, giving it a more secure place as a required ritual. Also noteworthy in
this regard is the view of Rabbi cited in Sifrei Bemidbar 108, who states that the Israelites’ ancestors
entered into the covenant through, among other things, immersion. He states that converts do the
same.
A number of rabbinic stories also insist on and assume immersion as a requirement. On Yevamot
46b, Rabbah reports an incident where a prospective convert was told to immerse by R. Hiyya b.
Rabbi. On 45b, two stories in the name of R. Asi and R. Yehoshua b. Levi validate conversions
by claiming that there was an immersion that happened at some point.
With respect to female conversions, the Talmud Bavli makes its perspective clear. In contemplating
how the first generation of women became Jewish when standing at Mount Sinai, the Talmud asks
and answers as follows:
:‫בבלי יבמות מו‬
?‫ במה נכנסו תחת כנפי השכינה‬,‫ דאם כן‬,‫טבילה באמהות מנלן? סברא הוא‬
Talmud Bavli Yevamot 46b
How do we know that our maternal ancestors immersed? It is common sense, for if not,
how else would they have entered under the wings of the divine presence?

Though the precise origin of the requirement of immersion as part of conversion is hard to anchor
in any ancient text, the Talmud here helps us understand its necessary centrality, particularly for
women. Rabbinic texts consistently assume without exception that conversion to Judaism is
an embodied process. A key element of becoming a Jew, as understood by our Sages, is that
one acquires a Jewish body. While some early sages—like R. Eliezer—thought that circumcision
alone might be able to effect this transition for men, women needed an alternative. That alternative

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

was immersion in water. And ever since the Talmudic period, this has been a bedrock, nonnegotiable element of conversion to Judaism for both men and women.
Summary: Immersion emerges in the classical rabbinic period as a central rite of conversion, as a
ritual mainly anchored in the practice of removing ritual impurities was exported to this more
metaphorical context of status change. Immersion signifies an embodied transition from a Gentile
to a Jewish state and is a critical element of any conversion.

Part II: Dignity—Why is immersion done naked?
For many, even stranger than the fact of immersion is the way it is done: wearing nothing. Why is it
done this way and how rigid is that requirement?
The use of water in order to effect purification and status change, is mentioned in the Torah in a
number of places. In most places it is described with the words ‫ורחץ במים‬/“He shall bathe in water”
or ‫ורחץ את בשרו במים‬/“He shall bathe his flesh in water.” These phrases alone might only indicate
washing a part of the body, perhaps the part that is the source of impurity or that directly contacted
it. But, when discussing a man with a seminal emission, the Torah phrases the requirement to bathe
as follows:
‫ טז‬,‫ויקרא טו‬
:‫וְ ִִ֕איׁש ִ ִּֽכי־תֵ ֵצֵ֥א ִמ ֶמֶּּ֖נּו ִׁשכְ בַ ת־זָ ַָ֑רע וְ ָר ַחֵ֥ץ בַ ַ ַּ֪מיִ ם אֶ ת־כָּל־בְ שָ ֶּ֖רֹו וְ טָ ֵ ֵ֥מא עַד־הָ ָ ִּֽע ֶרב‬
Vayikra 15:16
Now a man, when there goes out from him an emission of seed, he is to wash in water all of
his flesh, and will remain-tamei until sunset.

Rabbinic sources assume that this requirement is not specific to the case of a seminal emission, but
that it is a standard for all people and objects that must undergo purification or status change
through water. The entire body must be washed. In fact, the Sifra uses this phrasing of ‫ כל בשרו‬to
go even further: the water used for washing must be of sufficient quantity that the entire human
body could fit into it at once:
‫ פרשת זבים פרשה ג פרק ו הלכה ג‬- ‫ספרא מצורע‬
‫ מים שכל בשרו עולה להם וכמה הן אמה על אמה ברום שלש אמות נמצאת אתה אומר שיעור‬,‫את כל בשרו‬
.‫המקוה ארבעים סאה‬

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

Sifra Metzora Zavim Parashah 3 Perek 6 Halakah 3
“All of his flesh”—Water that his entire body could fit in. How much is that? Three cubic
cubits. From here we learn that the size of a mikveh must be 40 se’ah.

Thus, Jewish ritual baths must contain 40 se’ah of water (the equivalent of 332-573 liters, depending
on how you calculate it). One might still imagine one can accomplish the required act of bathing by
serially washing the various parts of one’s body, known in rabbinic terminology as ‫טבילה לחצאין‬. The
Sifra elsewhere negates this possibility, demanding immersion all at once. This requirement is creatively
derived from the following verse, which describes what impure priests must do before consuming
sacred meat:
‫ז‬-‫ ו‬,‫ויקרא כב‬
...‫ּובֵ֥א הַ ֶ ֶּ֖שמֶ ׁש וְ טָ ֵהר‬
ָ :‫ם־ר ַחֵ֥ץ בְ שָ ֶּ֖רֹו בַ ָ ִּֽמ ִים‬
ָ ‫וְ ֹ֤ל ֹא י ֹא ַכ ֙ל ִמן־הַ קֳּ דָ ִׁ֔ ִׁשים ִ ַּ֪כי ִא‬...
Vayikra 22:6-7
…he is not to eat of the holy-donations unless he washes his flesh in water; when the sun
comes in, (then) he is pure…

On this, the Sifra comments:
‫ספרא אמור פרשה ד פרק ד הלכה ז‬
‫ יכול יהיה מרחיץ אבר אבר ת"ל ובא השמש וטהר מה ביאת שמשו כולן כאחת אף במים‬,‫כי אם רחץ בשרו‬
.‫כולן כאחת‬
Sifra Emor Parashah 4 Perek 4:7
“Unless he washes his flesh in water”—Might it be allowed to wash one limb at a time?
Scripture says: “when the sun comes in, then he is pure”—just as sunset happens all at once,
so too [his immersion] in water must be all at once.

These texts thus combine to require that ritual bathing must be immersion of one’s entire body in 40
se’ah of water, all at once. [There was some controversy in the middle ages as to whether the rules
might be more lenient when dealing with a natural spring or other source of seemingly unlimited,
living waters. Rambam ruled that such a natural spring need not have 40 se’ah and R. Meshullam
suggests that perhaps ‫ טבילה לחצאין‬is also valid in this sort of spring.] And this leads to a situation
where the person immersing is naked when they do so. Indeed, quite apart from the various
prooftexts that produce this approach, immersion in the nude powerfully simulates a kind of
rebirth. Just as an infant emerges naked from the amniotic sack and begins life anew, so the
one who immerses in the mikveh experiences a significant transformation through nude
immersion that would not be captured by a more serial washing of the body.

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

In case there was any doubt that perhaps the rules for immersion for converts are different than for
cases of impurity, the Talmud clarifies in a baraita on Yevamot 47b that a convert must immerse in
the same sort of water needed for a niddah and that any object considered an obstruction in the
context of immersion for purity also constitutes an obstruction for the purposes of conversion.
Immersing in Clothing
However, a person could theoretically be covered in loose clothing and still have their entire body
come into contact with the water at once. Indeed, a Talmudic passage addresses this possibility.
Mishnah Beitzah 2:2 assumes unanimity around a prohibition to immerse objects (like vessels and
clothing) on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Beitzah 18a, Rav rules that a woman in a state of niddah
can circumvent this prohibition by immersing in a piece of impure clothing, thus purifying it at the
same time that she immerses herself (since immersion for people is not forbidden on Shabbat and
Yom Tov).
While this ruling is focused on the ban on immersion on Shabbat and Yom Tov, it has
consequences for the laws of immersion as well: Rav considers immersion while clothed to be a
valid immersion. This point is ruled by a number of later commentators:
‫ז‬:‫רמב"ם מקוואות א‬
‫וכל הטמאין שטבלו בבגדיהן עלתה להן טבילה‬...‫כל הטובל צריך שיטבול כל גופו כשהוא ערום בבת אחת‬
.‫ וכן הנדה שטבלה בבגדיה מותרת לבעלה‬,‫מפני שהמים באין בהן ואינן חוצצין‬
Rambam Mikvaot 1:7
Anyone who immerses should immerse his entire body while naked, all at once…If any
impure person immersed in his clothing, the immersion counts, because the water enters the
clothing and it does not constitute a barrier, and so too a niddah who immersed in her
clothing is permitted to her husband.
‫רא"ש מסכת נדה הלכות מקוואות סימן כח‬
‫נדה יכולה לטבול בבגדיה לפי שהמים נכנסין תחת הבגדים‬
Rosh Niddah, Mikvaot #28, R. Asher b. Yehiel, Germany/Spain, 13th c.
A niddah can immerse in her clothing, since the water comes in under the clothes.

Rambam’s language is cited in the Shulhan Arukh:
‫מו‬:‫שו"ע יורה דעה קצח‬
.‫נדה שטבלה בבגדיה מותרת לבעלה‬

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

Shulhan Arukh YD 198:46
A niddah who immerses in her clothing is permitted to her husband.

R. Eliezer b. Natan (Germany, 12th c.), in Ra’avan #327, argues that the validity of the immersion is
dependent on the clothing being loose, such that the water indeed comes into contact with the body.
R. Shabbetai Kohen (Poland, 17th c.), in Shakh YD 198:56, cites this as a limiting factor.
Nonetheless, others, such as Ma’adanei Yom Tov on Rosh above, seem to claim that no clothing
would really block water from getting the body wet. R. Moshe Feinstein (United States, 20th c.), in
Responsa Iggerot Moshe EH 4:23, seems to think that a bathing suit does not constitute a barrier
between the body and the water, at least on the level of retroactively invalidating an immersion.
If we followed Rav’s language of ‫נדה מערמת וטובלת‬/“A niddah can circumvent the law and
immerse”—which sounds like a prescriptive endorsement of the validity of such an immersion—it
would seem that one simple alternative would be for female converts to immerse in clothing in the
presence of a beit din of men.
Nonetheless, many understand immersion in clothing to be valid only after the fact, arguing that Rav
only permits such an immersion when there is a need for pure clothing, Rambam, they argue,
deliberately uses the language of ‫עלתה להם טבילה‬, which sounds post facto, Rosh Niddah Be-kitzur #2
assumes that normal procedure is for women to disrobe when they immerse for niddah, and Shulhan
Arukh uses the post facto language of ‫נדה שטבלה‬. Of course, even if this is correct, the simplest
argument is that these sources all deal with cases of a niddah, where men need not (and generally
should not) be present. Arguably, the case of a female convert, where many think that a court of
three men must be present for the immersion, is intrinsically ‫בדיעבד‬, a non-ideal situation to which
post facto rules ought to apply. Indeed, Ra’avan seems to make just such an argument:
‫ראב"ן נדה סימן שכז‬
‫ כדאמר [חולין‬,‫ואשה שיש לטבול במקום שבני אדם עומדין אם טובלת בסדין או בחלוק רחב עלתה לה טבילה‬
‫ אלמא טובלת בבגדיה‬,‫ל"א] נדה שנאנסה וטבלה רב אמר טהורה לביתה וכו' ואוקימנא בנפלה מן הגשר‬
‫ ודכוותה אמר רב [ביצה י"ח א] נידה שאין לה בגדים אחרי טבילה להחליף מערמת וטובלת‬.‫ועלתה לה טבילה‬
‫אלמא נידה טובלת בבגדיה ע"י דוחק כי הכא דנפלה או אין‬...‫בבגדיה בשבת או ביום טוב כדי להטבילם עמה‬
‫ ודוקא אשה‬.‫ הכא נמי מפני דוחק בני אדם שעומדין שם על הטבילה אם טבלה בבגדיה טבלה‬,‫לה בגדים‬
‫ אבל איש בבגדים‬,‫בבגדים שהן רחבים שכך היה מנהג נשים שלהן כמו שעדיין נוהגות הנשים של ארץ כנען‬
‫ מדנקט נדה ולא זב‬,‫שהן קצרים ודבוקין לבשר ולא מצי מיא עיילי לה או אשה בזמן הזה בבגדים קצרים לא‬
‫ ומיהו בין איש ובין אשה בסדין שרי משום צניעות דהא‬.‫או טמא אחר שמע מינה דאיש בבגדיו קצרים לא‬
.‫עיילי מיא ביה‬
Ra’avan Niddah #327
If a woman must immerse in a place where people are standing, her immersion counts if she
immerses in a sheet or a robe. As it says [on Hullin 31], “If a niddah immersed
unintentionally, Rav says she is permitted to her husband”…The Talmud understands that

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

ruling to apply to a case such as her falling off of a bridge [in which case she was clearly
clothed]. Therefore, she can immerse in her clothing and the immersion counts. Similarly,
“Said Rav: A niddah who has no [pure] clothing to change into after immersion can subvert
the law [against immersing clothing on Shabbat and Yom Tov] and immerse in her clothing
on Shabbat or Yom Tov in order to immerse them with her.” Therefore, a niddah can
immerse in her clothing in pressing circumstances, as in a case where she fell into the water
or she has no clothing. Here too, in the pressing case where there are people standing in the
place of immersion, if she immerses in her clothing, she has immersed. But this is only true
of a woman in clothing that is broad, since such was the dress of their women—as is the
practice of Bohemian women in our own time. But with respect to a man in narrow
clothing that is skin tight such that water cannot enter, or women today who wear arrow
clothing, this leniency does not apply. Since [Rav] only speaks of a niddah and not of a zav or
another impure person, we learn that a man in short clothing cannot do this. Nonetheless,
whether a man or a woman, it is permitted to immerse in a sheet on account of tzniut, since
water can penetrate.

While Ra’avan does not address a case of a female convert, the logic would seem to apply: given the
concern for tzniut, it is valid to plan an immersion in loose-fitting clothing such that doing the
immersion in the presence of a male beit din will not be improper. This logic is adopted by R.
Yitzhak Ya’akov Weiss (Galicia/England/Israel, 20th c.) in Responsa Minhat Yitzhak 4:34; he
suggests that female converts immerse while clothed in front of the beit din. But in order to
accommodate the seeming ideal to immerse in the nude, he suggests that the female convert then
immerse again in the nude in the presence of a woman after the beit din has left the room. R.
Ovadiah Yosef (Israel, 20th c.), in Responsa Yabia Omer I YD #19, is more lenient, advocating
that female converts simply wear a very loose robe where there is not yet a prevailing practice to the
contrary.
[I am not addressing here another issue that relates to wearing even very loose items that one would
not normally want to get wet. For instance, what is the effect of wearing a gold bracelet that in no
way impedes water from directly coming into contact with the body, but which one would normally
remove before getting wet? There is significant medieval and modern debate surrounding that
question, both in terms of what the ideal policy should be and what, if any, effects such objects have
on the validity of an immersion after the fact. Suffice it to say that the sort of robe suggested by
Yabia Omer above would not be subject to this sort of concern. Those interested in seeing a basic
survey of this side issue can consult the following sources: Shabbat 57a, Rashi there, Tur YD 198,
Beit Yosef and Shulhan Arukh YD 198:3-4, Pithei Teshuvah YD 198:4.]
Summary: Rabbinic sources understand the Biblical requirement to wash the body to entail
immersing in the nude, such that all of the body comes into contact with water at once. Immersion
creates an experience that echoes rebirth, as the body enters entirely into water and then emerges.
While nude immersion ensures simultaneous contact of all parts of the water with the body, this can

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Center for Jewish Law and Values

also be accomplished when wearing clothing that allows water to penetrate. Such immersions have
been validated since the Talmudic period and a number of authorities recommend clothed immersion
when it will preserve the dignity of the person who is immersing.

Part III: Power—The role of a court in conversion
Conversion to Judaism, as experienced today, involves rabbinic authority. Specifically, a beit din—a
court of three—ultimately oversees and validates the process of conversion. Where does the notion
that a beit din is required for conversion come from? And how essential is this requirement?
A number of excellent treatments of the topic have been written in recent years. Avi Sagi and Zvi
Zohar wrote an in-depth book in Hebrew on the history of halakhah around key topics in
conversion, including the role of a court in the process. The book was later also reworked for an
English edition. Sagi and Zohar try to separate out conflicting strands of interpretation surrounding
conversion, particularly with respect to the nature and scope of the requirement for the convert to
accept the burden of observing mitzvot once a Jew. Joshua Kulp analyzes the history of this question
in classical rabbinic literature. Kulp’s basic claim is that there is no evidence for a court in the
Tannaitic period and significant evidence against. The notion of converting in front of other Jews
has traces in the Tannaitic period, seems to grow in influence during the Amoraic period and only
really settles in to a universal assumption by the end of the Talmudic era. I will touch on a number
of texts he raises, but he offers a fuller analysis. Michal Tikochinsky discusses the role of a beit din in
both Hebrew and English versions of an article that deals more broadly with the question of female
converts immersing in front of men. She devotes considerable attention to medieval and modern
authorities who discuss this topic. Tikochinsky argues that we have overlooked various legal
opinions that would allow for female immersion in front of a group of three women. Her more
detailed analysis is highly valuable for understanding this topic more fully and its contemporary
relevance.
The Pre-history of Courts and Conversion
Tannaitic sources speak loudly through their silence regarding beit din. There is no Tannaitic text
that formally speaks about this requirement, and several that can hardly be recognized as compatible
with such a requirement. Most pointedly, the category of ‫גר שנתגייר בין הגויים‬/”a convert who
converted among the Gentiles” mentioned in Tosefta Shabbat 8:5 clearly points to the possibility
of self-conversion in a completely Gentile context devoid of knowledge of basic Jewish practices like
Shabbat. And such a conversion is universally agreed upon as valid in that text. [See parallel at Sifre
Zuta 15:14.]

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A number of sources speak of the notion of ‫קבלה‬/acceptance with respect to converts, indicating
some sort of vetting body that decides whether they are allowed to proceed to enter into the Jewish
people. But it is not at all clear that this indicates any sort of formal requirement. The notion of
“acceptance” may be a dreamed-of ideal, wherein the Jewish community and a rabbinic power
structure have the ability to control the flow of those converting in in a more stable way.
Alternatively, the language of ‫ קבלה‬may indicate nothing more than the Jewish community’s
acceptance of the convert after the conversion.
This latter definition seems to be the dynamic in play in the following text:
‫ דף סה עמוד ב‬,‫א‬:‫ירושלמי קידושין ד‬
‫המתגייר לשם אהבה וכן איש מפני אשה וכן אשה מפני איש וכן גירי שולחן מלכים וכן גירי אריות וכן גירי‬
‫מרדכי ואסתר אין מקבלין אותן‬
‫רב אמר הלכה גרים הן ואין דוחין אותן כדרך שדוחין את הגרים תחילה אבל מקבלין אותן וצריכין קירוב‬
‫פנים שמא גיירו לשם‬
Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:1, 65b
One who converts for the sake of love, whether a man for a woman or a woman for a man,
along with those who convert for political benefit, those who convert out of fear of divine
punishment or those who convert for fear of the Jews [like in the days of Mordechai and
Esther], should not be accepted.
Rav said: The halakhah is that they are all converts and we do not push them away in the
same manner that we push away [prospective] converts when they first approach us. Rather,
we accept them and we must draw them close since they may have converted out of sincere
motives.

The opening baraita states that converts coming from improper motives should not be accepted.
From Rav’s subsequent statement it is clear that we are speaking about people who have already
converted and we are assessing their conversion in retrospect. It is clear that ‫ מקבלין‬here refers to
some sort of acceptance into the community of Israel. It is less clear as to whether this is in the
sense of giving the conversion a stamp of validity (Kulp’s preferred reading—based on the parallel
in the Bavli and Massekhet Gerim to the baraita, which reads ‫ )אינם גרים‬or allowing the convert to
marry other Jews (Zohar and Sagi’s preferred reading—paralleled by the dynamic in Mishnah
Yadayim 4:4). Either way, this text is important for showing that the term ‫ מקבלין‬need not in any
way indicate a court that must administer a conversion in order for it to be valid.
A series of rulings in Tosefta Demai 2:3-7 also clearly use the term ‫ מקבלין‬in this retroactive
fashion. Those rulings deal with various figures who have accepted obligations upon themselves,
including a kohen who has agreed to all the rules of the Temple service except one, where the rule is
‫אין מקבלין אותו‬/“we do not accept him”. That statement clearly has nothing to do with validating his

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status as a kohen but rather has to do with allowing him to participate in the Temple service and to
eat holy foods associated with it. In the parallel case of a ‫גר‬/convert, it is possible the text is
speaking about a refusal to recognize his conversion at all in practice, but might also be limited to
accepting him for marriage to other Jews. Either way, there is no evidence here of a court as part of
the process of conversion.
There are a few texts that seem to indicate some kind of vetting process done by some group of
people before the conversion begins. Yerushalmi Demai 2:1, 22c features the phrase ‫גר שבא‬
‫להתגייר אין מקבלין אותו‬/“A (prospective) convert who comes to convert is not accepted”, where
some sort of ‫ קבלה‬is in place before the process has started. In the Bavli baraita parallel to Tosefta
Demai above on Bekhorot 30b, the language is different and also reads: ‫עובד כוכבים שבא לקבל דברי‬
‫ אין מקבלין אותו‬,‫תורה חוץ מדבר אחד‬/“A Gentile who comes to accept all matters of Torah except for
one is not accepted,” which clearly places the ‫ קבלה‬prior to the conversion. And then in the Bavli’s
long baraita on conversion on Yevamot 47a-b, there is clearly some body of people who are giving
instructions and warnings in the phase before conversion has begun. However, while this points to
some growing institutionalization of conversion, there is no evidence yet for the need for a court as
an element of the conversion itself. To the extent that conversion is essentially a personal and devotional
transition, it would make a great deal of sense to have it be parallel to all other forms of purification
and status change, which do not require a court.
Several sources point to rabbis converting (as a transitive verb) people who are coming to them,
perhaps indicating increasing rabbinic influence over the process. Yerushalmi Yevamot 8:1, 8d
features a story told by R. Yitzhak b. Nahman about R. Yehoshua b. Levi asking R. Yudan
Nesia to stay and help him complete a conversion. While this is not a story about a court of three,
there does seem to be some notion here of desiring or requiring the presence of other Jews (Sages?
The Patriarch?) in order to execute a conversion. A parallel story on Bavli Yevamot 46b reported by
Rabbah features a conversion that is delayed until the next day, with the rabbinic protagonist saying
‫ונטבלינך‬/“and we will immerse you,” indicating a plural group of people who will be involved in the
immersion of a male convert.
Finally, the aforementioned baraita on Yevamot 47a-b describing the conversion process has not
only an anonymous set of people who instruct and warn the potential convert, but also features ‫שני‬
‫תלמידי חכמים‬/”two scholars” who are present for the immersion and instruct the convert prior to
this final act.
None of these sources in any way suggests the presence of a court as a sine qua non for conversion.
In fact, we have statements of Amoraim that are clearly incompatible with any requirement of a
court. R. Asi validates the Jewish status of a woman based on a presumption that she must have
immersed at some point for the purposes of niddah. This immersion—the only component of a

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female conversion—clearly did not take place in the presence of a court. We thus see an ongoing
tradition of validating conversions that happen outside of the context of courts.
One of the earliest explicit sources on the presence of a beit din for conversion is R. Huna’s
statement on Ketubot 11a holding that the conversion of a minor is done with the intention of the
beit din. Kulp analyzes this passage at length and suggests that the notion of a court being a part of
conversion was already crystallizing in R. Huna’s time and he utilized this fact to solve the problem
of how to convert a minor without his or her consent. We might even suggest that R. Huna was an
innovator of the idea of a formal beit din for conversion, as his language almost sounds like a beit din
might otherwise not have been involved, if not for the special case of the minor.
However we understand R. Huna, two things should be noted: 1) No source from Eretz Yisrael ever
mentions the formal need for a court as part of conversion and 2) there are a number of sources in
the Bavli—cited as hailing from Eretz Yisrael—that do assert the importance of a court, and we will
now turn to those.
Requirement for a Beit Din in the Babylonian Talmud
The most direct source on this question is a Babylonian baraita, which states, in the name of R.
Yehudah, that conversion without a court is invalid:
.‫תלמוד בבלי יבמות מז‬
‫ הרי זה‬- ‫ גר שנתגייר בב"ד‬:‫ מכאן א"ר יהודה‬- ‫ ושפטתם צדק בין איש ובין אחיו ובין גרו‬+'‫דברים א‬+ :‫ת"ר‬
‫ א"ל‬,‫ נתגיירתי ביני לבין עצמי‬:‫ ואמר לו‬,‫ מעשה באחד שבא לפני רבי יהודה‬.‫ אינו גר‬- ‫ בינו לבין עצמו‬,‫גר‬
‫ ואי אתה‬,‫ נאמן אתה לפסול את עצמך‬:‫ א"ל‬.‫ הן‬:‫ יש לך בנים? א"ל‬.‫ לאו‬:‫ יש לך עדים? אמר ליה‬:‫רבי יהודה‬
.‫נאמן לפסול את בניך‬
Talmud Bavli Yevamot 47a
Our Sages taught: “You shall judge fairly between a man and his brother and his ger [read
here as convert]. Based on this, R. Yehudah said: A convert who converts in a beit din is
considered a convert. A convert who converts on his own is not considered a convert.
Once a man came to R. Yehudah and said to him: “I converted on my own.” R. Yehudah
said to him: “Do you have witnesses?” He said: “No.” “Do you have children?” He said:
“Yes.” R. Yehudah said to him: “You are reliable to disqualify yourself, but you are not
reliable to disqualify your children.”

Kulp notes that there is a total absence of courts in any discussion of conversion in Eretz Yisrael.
Indeed, a number of other elements of the first part of this baraita seem out of step with Eretz
Yisrael traditions. The word ‫ גרו‬in Devarim 1:16 is never read as referring to a convert in any
Tannaitic text. In addition, there is a parallel to the second half of the baraita here in Yerushalmi
Kiddushin 4:7, 66a, whereas there is no parallel to the first half, where the issue of converting with a

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court is discussed. Internal to the Bavli text itself, we also see that the second half of this baraita
does not match the first part: it speaks about witnesses, whereas the first half talks about beit din.
Also, the subsequent section of Talmud reveals that Amoraim in the Bavli clearly know the latter
part of this text and comment on it, whereas there is no Amoraic comment on the first portion.
All of this points to a reasonable conclusion that the first section of this baraita has been refracted
through a later Babylonian conception that a court might be critical for conversion. [This sort of
reworking of earlier traditions in Babylonia was already known to medieval commentators and
modern scholars have documented it more systematically. For a good introduction to this sort of
analysis, see J. Kulp and J. Rogoff, Reconstructing the Talmud, 23-29.] In any event, even in this later
form, the insistence on a court is only attributed to R. Yehudah, whose position might not be
universally accepted.
The most direct piece of evidence demanding a court in all conversions is the statement of R.
Yohanan found on Yevamot 46b: ‫גר צריך שלשה‬/“a convert requires three.” R. Yohanan seems to
have been engaging in some way with the long baraita on 47a-b and its mention of two scholars,
who are present for the convert’s immersion, because on 47b he instructs someone to emend the
text to read three, in keeping with his view. This statement itself is not overly focused on a court per
se, but requiring three seems to imply a court, and the Aramaic appendage to R. Yohanan’s
statement: ‫משפט כתיב ביה‬, while highly unlikely to be Amoraic, makes this angle clear.
Even a full normative acceptance of R. Yohanan only suggests a desired process—‫—צריך‬not
necessarily a sine qua non—‫מעכב‬. This last leap is made by the anonymous voice of the Talmud on
Kiddushin 62b. The text there is discussing marriages that are contracted based on future events,
such as a Gentile man who gives an object of worth to a Jewish woman and declares that the
betrothal will take effect after his future conversion. The Mishnah declares that such a marriage is
invalid. The Talmud concludes that this is so because a convert is incapable of (not just forbidden
from) converting on his own and cites R. Yohanan’s requirement for a court of three as proof. This
layer of interpretation then turns R. Yohanan into a non-negotiable requirement. This would then
complete the transition from a world of self-performed conversions to one in which conversions
must be performed by valid rabbinic courts.
As a value statement, this approach removes conversion from the personal realm. The beit din
now functions as a legal, naturalizing body, its authority an essential element of the process
of admitting someone to the ranks of the Jewish people. If the physical acts of conversion
are personal and embodied steps taken by the convert, the metaphysical shift in that
person’s status is only effected through empowered emissaries of the Jewish people.

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Harmonizing Conflicting Precedents in the Babylonian Talmud
Nonetheless, recall that the Talmud reports that R. Asi validated a woman as Jewish by confirming
that she had visiting the mikveh in the context of niddah, an immersion at which the court was clearly
not present. How can we reconcile this with the Talmud’s interpretation of R. Yohanan and the
non-negotiable requirement for a court?
There are at least nine ways of resolving this tension:
1) R. Asi and the Talmud’s reading of R. Yohanan are indeed conflicting rulings. But there is
no inherent contradiction between R. Asi and the plain sense of R. Yohanan. R. Yohanan
said ‫ צריך‬but not ‫ ;מעכב‬ideally we have the involvement of a court, but it is not essential after
the fact. We do not take the anonymous Talmud’s usage of R. Yohanan in the Kiddushin
passage to be determinative of R. Yohanan’s normative meaning. This seems to be the
approach of Halakhot Ketuot cited in Ginzei Kedem V, p 156 (=Toratan Shel Rishonim
II:15).
2) R. Asi and the Talmud’s reading of R. Yohanan are in conflict, and we rule like the Talmud’s
reading of R. Yohanan. Therefore, any conversion done without a court is invalid, even
after the fact. This is the approach of Halakhot Gedolot #8, p. 152.
3) An immersion done for purposes of conversion is valid after the fact, even if there was no
beit din. R. Asi’s ruling is about seeing immersion for niddah as indicative of a prior immersion
for conversion. But this conversion is valid only with respect to validating facts already on the
ground. For instance, any children born to such a person have full Jewish legal status and
presumably existing marriages don’t need to be broken up. It is likely that any number of
stringencies that apply to Jews would apply to this person. R. Yohanan’s ruling applies to
any proactive step we will now take with this convert that will treat him like a Jew, most
notably with respect to marrying other Jews, but also with anything we would describe as
‫מנהג גר‬/“treating him like a convert”. [This fascinating category is left undefined; it is
unclear what, beyond allowing a marriage, it might include.] These bridges are only crossed
upon an actual immersion in front of a court of three. This is an attempt to balance
approaches 1) and 2). This seems to me the correct reading of the Rif, and Meiri on
Shabbat 68b and Rosh interpret Rif in this way as well.
4) A beit din is always non-negotiable for conversion and without immersion in the presence of
three, there is no force to the conversion whatsoever. However, immersion for the purposes
of niddah—and for that matter, any other established pattern of mitzvah observance—is
indicative of a prior immersion in the presence of a court. This establishes a presumption that the
person is a Jew, but we only apply this presumption to facts already on the ground. In order
to allow marriage to a Jew, we would require re-immersion in front of a court of three in our
presence. This is Rambam’s view, which represents an extension and further development

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5)

6)

7)

8)

9)

Center for Jewish Law and Values

of the Rif that takes R. Yohanan even more seriously as a non-negotiable element of
conversion.
R. Asi’s validation of immersion without a court is because such a public, well-known
immersion that everyone is aware of is considered ‫כאילו עומדים שם‬/“as if the court is
standing there.” This is a view cited in the Tosafot. In other words, the public nature of
the immersion is non-negotiable, but there are other ways for it to be public without actually
having a court physically present at the time of immersion.
R. Asi validates immersion without a court, but there is another component that can suffice
for the court requirement: ‫קבלת מצוות‬/“acceptance of mitzvot.” Having a court present at
that phase is sufficient to meet R. Yohanan’s criterion. This is the view of Tosafot, who
invent this stage of ‫ קבלת מצוות‬as distinct from immersion in order to solve the problem of
R. Asi and R. Yohanan. Tosafot Yeshanim clarify that this interpretation only works if we
assume that R. Asi’s case featured an earlier ‫ קבלת מצוות‬in the presence of a beit din.
A hybrid view of Tosafot and the Rif: Having a court for ‫ קבלת מצוות‬is non-negotiable for a
valid conversion. If immersion was not done in the presence of a beit din (even if ‫קבלת מצוות‬
was), then the convert’s status is validated for all facts already on the ground but cannot be
allowed to marry Jews until an immersion in the presence of a court. Ramban holds this
view by reading it back into the Rif.
In R. Asi’s case, the immersion was completely up to R. Yohanan’s standards and in fact
happened in the presence of a beit din, which is non-negotiable for a conversion. But
because the immersion was not for the purposes of conversion, but for niddah, people used
to disparage these converts. R. Asi defended these converts because they did, after all,
immerse in the presence of a court. This is the view of Ra’ah cited in Ritva and strains the
facts of the R. Asi case considerably.
R. Asi’s case was a valid immersion on the Biblical plane, because R. Yohanan’s requirement
of three is only a rabbinic-level requirement. There is indeed a Biblical-level requirement for
a beit din, but even one person is sufficient for that, and there was clearly one person present
for the immersion. This is the view of R. Yehudah bR. Yom Tov and R. Simhah, cited in
the Mordechai. See also Or Zarua I:745. It seems highly implausible that this view is
claiming the presence of a man during the woman’s niddah immersion. Rather, this seems to
reflect a view, attested in the world of the Tosafot, that women are valid as judges, at least in
this case. [We will return to this position in Part V.]

Two things should be clear from this analysis. First, with respect to assessing conversions after the
fact, there ought to be a reasonable amount of leeway with regard to validating at least some
conversions or at least some facts on the ground even in the context of serious questions
surrounding the role and validity of the beit din that was involved in the process. Approach 1 might
be added fodder for validating a questionable beit din situation after the fact.

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Second, almost all of the approaches, as a matter of protocol, require that a court attend to the
immersion. For approaches 1-5 and 8-9, the entire essence of the conversion for a woman is the
immersion, such that a court must clearly attend to it. Approach 5 suggests that the requirement for
immersion in the presence of the beit din is met if the immersion is clearly known to all to have
happened. Approach 9 opens the possibility that women might be valid to serve as members of the
court, but the presence of at least a single valid judge is non-negotiable. Approach 6 explores bolder
territory, suggesting that immersion is not the essence of conversion. Rather, the acceptance of
mitzvot is the core element and it is this that requires a court. Immersion may not need a court at all.
Approach 7 grants this approach some weight for validating facts on the ground, but ultimately
aligns with all of the other approaches as a matter of preferred procedure.
The question surrounding flexibility around the presence of a beit din for the immersion thus comes
down to the relative weighting of approach 6 against all of the other approaches. And much of the
analysis of the proper weighting comes down to how to read the Shulhan Arukh. Here is what it
says:
‫ג‬:‫שו"ע יורה דעה רסח‬
‫ וביום‬,‫ צריך שיהיו בג' הכשרים לדון‬,‫ בין להודיעו המצות לקבלם בין המילה בין הטבילה‬,‫כל ענייני הגר‬
)‫ אבל בדיעבד אם לא מל או טבל אלא בפני ב' (או קרובים‬,‫ מיהו דוקא לכתחלה‬.)‫(תוס' ורא"ש פ' החולץ‬
‫ הוי גר‬,‫ אלא איש שטבל לקריו ואשה שטבלה לנדתה‬,‫ אפילו לא טבל לשם גרות‬,‫(הגהות מרדכי) ובלילה‬
‫ אפילו בדיעבד‬,‫ ולהרי"ף ולהרמב"ם‬.‫ חוץ מקבלת המצות שמעכבת אם אינה ביום ובשלשה‬,‫ומותר בישראלית‬
‫ לא‬,‫ אבל אם נשא ישראלית והוליד ממנה בן‬,‫ ואסור בישראלית‬,‫ מעכב‬,‫שטבל או מל בפני שנים או בלילה‬
.‫פסלינן ליה‬
Shulhan Arukh YD 268:3
Everything to do with a convert, informing him of the mitzvot so he will accept them, the
circumcision and the immersion must be done in the presence of three people who are valid
to judge and during the day. However, this is only ab initio. Post facto, if the circumcision and
the immersion were done in the presence of two people (or relatives) and at night, even if the
immersion was not for the purposes of conversion, but a man immersed for a seminal
emission and a women immersed for niddah, the person is a convert and may marry other
Jews, with the exception of the acceptance of mitzvot, which must non-negotiably have
happened during the day and in the presence of three.
But for Rif and Rambam, if the immersion or the circumcision happened in the presence of
only two or at night, the conversion is invalid and he may not marry a Jewish woman,
though if he already married a Jewish woman and had a son with her, we do not disqualify
him.

The Shulhan Arukh in fact begins by codifying approach 6, tolerating the validity of a conversion
where no beit din was present for the immersion. Only then does he cite Rif and Rambam’s more
exacting standards in this regard. Several later authorities argued that this signals a holding like

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approach 6 and therefore creates room for leeway when female immersion in the presence of men is
untenable. The well-established principle of ‫שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי‬/“pressing cirumstances are treated
like a post facto situation” might lead one to claim that, in such pressing circumstances, the presence
of a male court of three is only required when it is non-negotiably required for the conversion to be
valid. If the Shulhan Arukh endorses approach 6, then perhaps we can forgo the presence of the
court at the immersion if it will create a difficult or inappropriate situation. This is the core of the
approach of R. Uzziel in Responsa Mishpetei Uzziel YD I:13. Tukochinsky analyzes this source
in depth, but its basic argument is to shore up approach 6 as dominant, to see the presence of the
beit din as only truly critical for the phase of accepting mitzvot (even according to the Rif and the
Rambam), and to argue that the improprieties involved in having a beit din at the immersion of a
female convert warrant following post facto standards in this area. He aims to accommodate the
views of Rif and Rambam by instructing the beit din to appoint three women to administer the
female convert’s immersion, such that they will function as emissaries of the beit din. This has the
effect of marshaling approaches 5 and 9 to the cause as well. Tukochinsky cites a few other sources
that look favorably on this approach as well.
R. Uzziel’s approach makes a great deal of sense as an attempt to look at the full scope of opinions
here, though he blurs some lines while doing so. In particular, Sagi and Zohar demonstrate that there
is no such thing as ‫ קבלת מצות‬outside of immersion for anyone other than the Tosafot and their intellectual
descendants. Therefore, any attempt to say that Rif and Rambam would ultimately concede that
immersion can happen without a court as long as ‫ קבלת מצות‬happened with one is fundamentally
flawed. R. Uzziel can only be shored up by seeing him as ultimately convinced by the Tosafot’s
approach and the combined wisdom of approaches 5, 6 and 9, even as he perhaps oversteps by
reading these preferences back into the Rif and the Rambam.
For this reason, others who are particularly enamored of the Rambam’s approach—and especially
those who do not think that the Shulhan Arukh so obviously sidelines it—reject R. Uzziel. R.
Ovadiah Yosef, in Responsa Yabia Omer I YD #19, strongly rejects R. Uzziel’s approach,
asserting that the Shulhan Arukh indeed follows Rif and Rambam on this front and does so without
any flexibility. Similarly, R. Moshe Feinstein, in Iggerot Moshe YD 2:127, asserts that a woman
who has an immersion without the presence of a beit din is in a doubtful state. Out of concern for
the Rambam’s position—which he does not assume is dismissed by the Shulhan Arukh—he requires
a second immersion in the presence of a beit din in order to clarify her status. [See also Teshuvot
Vehanhagot I:621 for a similar view.]
Summary: The requirement for a beit din as part of conversion emerges during the Talmudic period.
By the end of that period, it is settled law that a court of three should be a part of this process.
Debate continued over the following questions: How non-negotiable is this requirement? Must the
court be present for the immersion itself, or can the requirement for a beit din be met during a
separate phase of accepting the obligations of mitzvah observance? The discussion essentially

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comes down to how one weighs the relative approaches of the Tosafot and the Rambam. Michal
Tikochinsky tries to reopen this debate by citing R. Uzziel and an early suggestion of the Tzitz
Eliezer, both of whom seem to be fundamentally willing to govern female immersion cases by post
facto rules, arguing that the Shulhan Arukh does not negate the validity of conversions that fail to
match Rambam’s paradigm. Anyone insisting that we must accommodate Rambam’s view even in
pressing circumstances will balk at any such leniency, as do R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Ovadiah
Yosef.

Part IV: Presence—What counts as the beit din being present?
If the beit din merely needed to be involved in the immersion, to guide it, to instruct it, to ensure that
the convert was proceeding with the intention of fulfilling its requirements, the contemporary
discussion would be much less charged. The heart of the matter surrounding a male beit din and
female converts centers around an assumption that the male beit din must be in the room when the female
convert immerses. Where does this come from and is there any room for nuance in this regard?
In order to understand the discussion, we must begin with the central Talmudic text that discusses
the immersion procedure:
:‫בבלי יבמות מז‬
‫ הרי הוא‬- ‫ ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות; טבל ועלה‬,‫ושני ת"ח עומדים על גביו‬
‫ ומודיעין‬,‫ ושני ת"ח עומדים לה מבחוץ‬,‫ נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צוארה‬,‫ אשה‬.‫כישראל לכל דבריו‬
.‫אותה מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות‬
Talmud Bavli Yevamot 47b
…Two scholars stand above him and inform him of a selection of less and more severe
mitzvot. Once he immerses and comes up [out of the water], he is like a Jew for all purposes.
In the case of a woman, women place her in the water up to her neck and two scholars stand
outside and they inform her of a selection of less and more severe mitzvot.

This text makes clear that male and female converts do not have the same procedure. Specifically,
while both types of convert receive instruction regarding mitzvot from the scholars while in the
water, men receive it as the scholars stand over them, whereas women receive it as the scholars
stand outside the room. A plain reading of the text suggests that the scholars (later understood to
be a court of three—see Part III) never enter the room. They are present, but in the sense of giving the
act of immersion meaning and context. The notion that immersion must be done with intention
and proper context is true more broadly, thus giving even more sense to this choreography.
Mishnah Hagigah 2:6 makes clear that immersions for impurity done without any intention are
invalid. By informing the convert of the mitzvot immediately prior to immersion, the

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scholars assure that this is no mere dunk in a body of water, but an act of physical and
spiritual transformation. The women place the female convert up to her neck in water so that she
is as close as she can be to immersion while still able to receive the final charge from the rabbinic
figures waiting outside. The scholars’ brief review of a selection of essential mitzvot
immediately prior to immersion bestows meaning on this act and allows this Gentile to
become a Jew. But there is no need for them to be physically in the room in order to accomplish
this function.
Another rabbinic source takes for granted that the immersion for conversion is a single-gender
affair:
‫מסכתות קטנות מסכת גרים פרק א הלכה ד‬
.‫ והאשה מטבלת את האשה אבל לא את האיש‬,‫האיש מטביל את האיש‬
Massekhet Gerim 1:4
A man immerses a man and a woman immerses a woman, but not a man.

The final redaction of Massekhet Gerim is post-Talmudic, though it contains much material that
hails from the Tannaitic period. Whatever its dating, we find here a clear assumption that a woman
is the one who supervises the immersion of a female convert.
Indeed, Rif, Rosh and a host of others simply cite the language of Talmud Bavli Yevamot and give
no indication that the beit din’s presence has anything to do with seeing the immersion itself. The
sense in which the immersion requires a beit din is that it is given context and content by the beit din,
not in the sense of needing to witness the act of the immersion. For that, the women who are in
with the convert are sufficient. And had the formulation of this law remained in its Talmudic form,
such an approach would likely have been entirely uncontroversial. Indeed, authorities in medieval
Ashkenaz seem unambiguously to have taken this interpretive approach. Consider the following
explicit statement from R. Yitzhak b. Moshe (Vienna, 13th c.):
‫ הלכות יבום וקידושין סימן תקצח‬- ‫ספר אור זרוע חלק א‬
‫ וכן הי' ר' אליעזר מוסר לאשתו ור' ישמעאל מוסר לאמו ר' יהודה‬.‫ת"ר כל הנבדקות נבדקות ע"י נשים‬...
‫אומר לפני הפרק ולאחר הפרק נשים בודקות אותה [תוך הפרק אין נשים בודקות אותן] שאין משיאין ספיקות‬
‫ ונאמנת אשה להחמיר אבל לא להקל ומסקנא‬.‫ע"פ הנשים ר' שמעון אומר אף תוך הפרק נשים בודקות אותן‬
'‫ או ר' שמעון קתני לה אבל לר' אליעזר ור‬.‫דהא דקתני שאינה נאמנת להקל היינו או ר' יהודה קתני לה‬
‫ישמעאל נאמנת אשה אף להקל ושמא הלכה כר' אליעזר ור' ישמעאל משום דמעשה רב ואמר נמי בהחולץ גבי‬
‫ אשה נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צווארה ושני ת"ח עומדים לה מבחוץ משמע שאינם רואים אותה‬.‫גיורת‬
.‫וסומכים בטבילתה על ראיית נשים‬

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Or Zarua I:598
Our Sages taught: “Any women who need to be checked [for legally relevant signs of sexual
maturity] are checked by women. R. Eliezer used to delegate this to his wife and R.
Yishmael would delegate this to his mother. R. Yehudah says: women can check her [before
the age of 11 and after the age of 12, when she is presumed to be either a minor or sexually
mature, respectively], but they may not check her between 11 and 12, because we do not
allow doubts to be resolved by women. R. Shimon says: women can check her between 11
and 12 as well. A woman is trusted [to provide information about ritual status] in order to
be stringent, but not to be lenient.” But this conclusion that we do not trust her in order to
be lenient must be according to either R. Yehudah or R. Shimon. However, according to R.
Eliezer and R. Yishmael, a woman is trusted even to be lenient. And perhaps the halakhah
follows R. Eliezer and R. Yishmael, because they acted on their approach. It also says in
Yevamot about a female convert that in the case of a woman, women place her in the water
up to her neck and two scholars stand outside. This implies that they do not see her and
they rely on what the women see to validate her immersion.

The Or Zarua takes for granted that the Talmud never requires the men to see the woman immerse,
such that he uses this as a basis for establishing women’s general reliability to establish ritual facts!
Rambam’s Innovation
Rambam, however, modifies the Talmud’s formulation in a significant way:
‫ו‬:‫רמב"ם איסורי ביאה יד‬
,‫ושלשה עומדין על גביו ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות פעם שנייה והוא עומד במים‬
‫ואם היתה אשה נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צוארה והדיינין מבחוץ ומודיעין אותה מקצת מצות קלות‬
‫ והיא יושבת במים ואח"כ טובלת בפניהם והן מחזירין פניהן ויוצאין כדי שלא יראו אותה כשתעלה‬,‫וחמורות‬
.‫מן המים‬
Rambam Issurei Biah 14:6
Three men stand above him and inform him of a selection of less and more severe mitzvot
once again while he is standing in the water. In the case of a woman, women place her in
the water up to her neck while the judges are outside and they inform her of a selection of
less and more severe mitzvot while she is sitting in the water. Afterwards, she immerses in
front of them and they then avert their faces and leave so that they will not see her when she
comes up out of the water.

Rambam begins by updating the two scholars to be a group of three, in keeping with R. Yohanan’s
correction of the base text. [See part III.] But the radical change here is that the three men have
now entered the immersion room itself. Though Rambam preserves something of the original
Talmudic text by omitting any reference to the scholars’ entrance into the room, the last line here
makes it clear they are there. Their presence in the room is clearly critical for Rambam, because he

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now must narrate how they will avoid being in a compromised position when the woman emerges
from the water. Since the Shulhan Arukh cites the Rambam’s language verbatim, understanding his
position becomes critical for establishing normative practice.
Where does Rambam get this from? It is possible that Rambam is simply deeply enamored of the
notion that the beit din’s presence—and not just their instruction—is what enables this dunk in a
pool of water to turn someone from a Gentile into a Jew. Taking his cue from the directive to the
beit din to stand above the male convert while he is in the water—‫—עומדין על גביו‬he may have
assumed that this could not be any different for the female convert. Indeed, in other parts of
Rambam’s narrative of conversion, he adds details that are not spelled out in the Talmud, such as
the court’s responsibility to review core religious and theological principles (not just mitzvot) with the
convert. Nonetheless, since the Rambam does not typically add details to his codification that do
not have some sort of anchor in classical rabbinic texts, others have searched for alternative
motivations for this surprising new requirement.
R. Yaakov Ettlinger (Germany, 19th c.) attempts to ground it in the language of the gemara itself:
‫ערוך לנר מסכת יבמות דף מז עמוד ב‬
‫ונ"ל שיצא לו כן מהא דקתני דמושיבין אותה עד צוארה ולמה לו כן אלא ודאי מפנו שצריכים הדיינים לכנוס‬
‫ולראות טבילתה לכן צריכה שתשב תחלה במים‬
Arukh LaNer Yevamot 47b
It seems to be that he derived this from the phrase “they place her in the water up to her
neck.” Why would they need to do this? It must be because the judges must enter to see
her immersion and therefore she must first sit in the water…

Arukh LaNer, in an effort to give grounding to the Rambam’s words, argues that the Talmud’s
directive to the women to place the female convert in water up to her neck must be to prepare a
reasonable modest situation for the entering judges. The only reason for this detail, he argues, is to
make sure that the judges will not see her exposed body when they come in to instruct her and to
supervise her immersion. [The Vilna Gaon makes a similar claim.] Rambam then merely completes
the second half of the story, directing the judges to leave immediately in order to avoid seeing the
woman as she exits the water just as they avoided seeing her as she enters.
We argued above that there might well have been another meaning to the directive to place the
woman in water up to her neck, which is to ensure that she is immediately prior to immersion when
the court is addressing her. In fact, Arukh LaNer’s reading seems difficult, in that the Talmud states
that the court stands outside after it directs the woman to be in water up to her neck. If Arukh
LaNer is correct, ought not it be the case that the men come in as soon as she is covered in water up

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to her neck? Why do they wait outside while they inform the female convert of a selection of
mitzvot?
R. Avraham Tzvi Klein (Hungary, 19th c.), in Responsa Be’eirot Avraham II:33, seems to grapple
with these questions along with the seeming impropriety of having the judges present in the
immersion room. He offers a completely different reading of Rambam, where ‫ טובלת בפניהם‬refers
only to seeing the woman go under from an adjacent room. This accounts for the lack of a stage
direction for them to enter and controls somewhat for the breach in privacy. The instruction to the
judges to leave is meant to tell them to leave even this adjacent room such that they do not even get
a glimpse of the woman emerging naked from the mikveh. This stretches the syntax of the Rambam
and posits an additional room of which he never speaks.
Akiva Sternberg has suggested a historical context for the Rambam. Rambam lived at a time when
there was a widespread crisis surrounding the observance of immersion at the end of niddah. The
vast majority of women either refused to go to the mikveh at all, or merely washed in a regular
bathhouse to mark the end of the niddah period. Rambam was heavily involved in communal efforts
to protest this situation and to change it, but to little avail. Sternberg suggests that the Rambam’s
motivation here is that he does not trust women to make sure that an immersion has happened properly. In a
culture of such widespread female disregard for immersion, Rambam may have felt the need to
ensure that the beit din itself witnessed this key immersion on which a person’s new Jewish status
depends.
However we understand Rambam, his ruling constitutes a significant addition to the base text of the
Talmud and to what seems to have been the holding of many other medieval authorities. When
later authorities—such as the Shulhan Arukh—cite his language, are they consciously adopting his
innovative standard, or are they merely using a conventional formula from the pen of a great
codifier?
At least one scholar seems to have thought that the latter was the case. In his commentary on the
passage from Massekhet Gerim cited above, R. Ya’akov Naumberg (Germany, 18th c.), says the
following:
‫ד‬:‫נחלת יעקב על גרים א‬
‫וא"כ מוכח‬...'‫והא דקתני הכא האיש מטביל את האיש לאו דוקא איש אחד דהא קי"ל דלטבילת גרים בעינן ג‬
‫ אלא הא דנקט הכא האיש מטביל את האיש לא אתי לאשמועינן אלא דאיש צריך לטבול‬.'‫דלא סגי באיש א‬
‫בפני אנשים ואשה בפני נשים והת"ח עומדים מבחוץ בטבילת האשה וכ"כ בש"ע סי' רסח דאשה הנשים‬
.‫מושיבין אותה במים ובית דין עומדין מבחוץ‬

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Nahalat Ya’akov on Gerim 1:4
When it says here, “a man immerses a man”, it does not really mean a single man, for we
hold that the immersion of converts requires three…If so, we clearly cannot suffice with one
man. Rather, when it says here, “a man immerses a man” it is only coming to teach that a
man must immerse in front of men and a woman in front of women and the scholars stand
outside while the woman immerses. And so it is written in Shulhan Arukh [YD] 268
that, in the case of a woman, the women place her in water and the court stands
outside.

Quite clearly, Nahalat Ya’akov reads the language at the end of the Shulhan Arukh as imprecise,
reflecting a quotation of the Rambam that is not meant to have legal force. However, most later
authorities did not approach the Shulhan Arukh in this way and assume that its language is meant to
endorse the Rambam’s insistence on having judges present in the room when the female convert
immerses. We have seen how R. Ovadiah Yosef, R. Moshe Feinstein and others all follow the
Rambam exactingly and insist that the presence of the male beit din for the female convert’s
immersion is essential. That consensus in Rambam interpretation is strong. Relying on alternative
interpretations of the Shulhan Arukh or on attempts to minimize the Rambam’s sway over this
discussion would likely only succeed when combined with nuanced positions outlined in the other
parts of this essay. As noted in Part III, several medieval authorities are far from certain that a beit
din is even required for immersion at all, much less that there is any requirement to be in the room.
However, there are signs of openness to more flexible readings of the Rambam’s requirement for
presence, even among the most strident supporters of the ongoing centrality of his position. R.
Ovadiah Yosef, immediately after insisting on hewing to the Rambam’s protocol, says the following:
‫ יורה דעה סימן יט‬- ‫שו"ת יביע אומר חלק א‬
‫ אפשר שיש להקל בדיעבד שלא‬,‫ והודיעוה מקצת מצות בשעת הטבילה‬,‫ומיהו אפשר שאם היו הב"ד מבחוץ‬
.‫ וצ"ע‬.‫תצטרך לחזור ולטבול בפני שלשה ממש‬
Responsa Yabia Omer I YD #19, R. Ovadiah Yosef, Israel, 20th c.
However, it is possible that if the beit din was outside and they informed the female convert
of selected mitzvot at the time of the immersion, perhaps there is place to be lenient after the
fact not to require her to immerse once again in the physical presence of three. This requires
further investigation.

R. Moshe Feinstein seems to go further, arguing that we ought to be broader in our understanding
of the Rambam’s definition of presence:
‫שו"ת אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ג סימן קיב‬
‫בדבר הגרות שהיתה בפני שלשה דיינים כשרים שנכנסו להמקוה כשהיתה עומדת עד צוארה במים ומחמת‬
‫שהיה המקום צר ולא יכלו לעמוד בשורה אחת באופן שיראו כולם היטב הרכנת ראשה במים אלא עמדו זה‬

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‫אחורי זה ראה רק הראשון דעמד אצל המקוה ושנים האחרים לא יכלו לראות אבל שמעו קול הטבילה בהכנסת‬
...‫ראשה בהמים‬
‫אבל אף אם‬...‫נמי לא מבעיא אם שמעו קול הכנסת ראשה דודאי הוא כראיה‬...‫אף לשיטת הרי"ף והרמב"ם‬...
‫אין להצריך דוקא ראיה ממש שאם איכא ידיעה ואומדנא‬...‫נמי פשוט שמהני‬...‫גם לא שמעו הרכנת הראש‬
‫גדולה כזו שודאי הכניסה כמו שאמרו לה שלא היה אפשר לה שלא להכניס ראשה ולהתחזק כגיורת כדכתבתי‬
...‫אין לחוש לכלום‬
Iggerot Moshe III:112, R. Moshe Feinstein, United States, 20th c.
With respect to a conversion that happened in the presence of three valid judges who
entered he mikveh while the convert was in the water up to her neck, but since the entrance
was narrow, they could not stand in a line such that all of them could clearly see her head
submerge. Rather, they stood one behind the other and only the one in front, who stood
next to the mikveh, could see, whereas the other two could not see but heard the sound of
the immersion when her head went into the water.
…Even according to the position of Rif and Rambam…it is obvious that if they heard the
sound of her head going into the water [that the conversion is valid] for that is certainly like
seeing it…But even if they did not hear the sound of her head submerging…it is also
obvious that the conversion is valid…We do not specifically require actual seeing [of the
immersion]; if there is knowledge and an obvious assessment that she certainly submerged
her head as they instructed her to—there was no way for her to be presumed a valid convert
without submerging her head—one need to have any concerns at all…

This complex responsum argues that even the Rambam’s definition of presence does not require
being in the room. Knowing that something happened by a strong assessment of the available facts
is equivalent to seeing it, and having other concrete evidence (such as hearing the immersion and/or
relying on the testimony of a reliable individual witness) is on even stronger ground. [R. Moshe goes
on later in the responsum to appeal to position 5) that we discussed in part III above, which
validates the notion of clear knowledge as being equivalent to physical presence. He creatively
suggests that perhaps even Rambam would have agreed with this basic treatment of facts by position
5): physical presence is not truly necessary for the beit din to be “present” at an immersion.
Interested readers should consult the rest of this text to see the argument there.]
We should note that R. Moshe offers language and legal reasoning that seem to support actively
allowing the beit din to be outside the room, but in the actual case he addresses, the court was
physically present (albeit with obstructed view of the immersion) and he is merely being called upon
to validate a conversion process that already took place. It is also surely the case that reading R.
Moshe as a prescriptive authorization in keeping with Rambam to have the court out of the room
would require quite a stretch of the latter’s actual language. Rambam seems to go out of his way to
place the beit din in the room. If Rambam truly thought the beit din could just as easily be out of the

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room, why did he not simply retain the Talmud’s original language? These questions may affect
whether this responsum alone can be invoked to alter standard procedure going forward; it would
seem more sound to have this source interplay with the many other factors we have examined.
Summary: The Talmud seems not to require that the beit din be in the room when a female convert
immerses; indeed it seems to forbid it. This reading of the Talmud seems to have been adopted by
many great medieval authorities, including those prior to the Rambam and those who lived in
Ashkenazi legal cultures shielded from his influence. Rambam, by contrast, seems to require that
the beit din witness the immersion itself. The language he uses suggests that this happens by entering
the room in which the female convert will immerse, though the source for this requirement is
unclear. Some argue for a basis in the Talmudic text, whereas others see historical factors as
paramount. Either way, the Shulhan Arukh adopts the Rambam’s language, leading most later
interpreters to assume that he adopts the Rambam’s standard in this regard. Whether Rambam’s
definition of presence is non-negotiable is less clear; one might be able to argue that in pressing
circumstances he would still consider a court that stood immediately outside to count as being in the
presence of the immersion.

Part V: Gender—Why not have a female beit din?
Of course, much of the concern that has arisen is specific to the opposite-sex nature of the
interaction between a male beit din and a female convert. The impropriety of such interactions is felt
all the more acutely in communities with otherwise robust codes around opposite-sex interaction.
This entire issue could be resolved if women were simply allowed to function as members of the beit
din. Why wouldn’t they be?
In Shoftim 4:4-5, we are told that Devorah judged the people and that they came to her for
judgment, seemingly indicating that women are fit to serve as judges. A number of rabbinic sources,
in passing, seem to affirm this notion as a historical reality: Rut Rabbah Parashah 1 reports a
number of views as to who the “judges” mentioned at the beginning of the book of Rut were.
Among the candidates: Devorah and Yael. Kohelet Rabbah Parashah 2 reports that among the
many people in the king’s royal entourage were male and female judges. By contrast, Sifrei
Devarim #13 considers it absurd that women would ever be appointed as community leaders of the
sort that Moshe tells the people to appoint as judges in Devarim 1:13.
These descriptive sources seem to portray an uneven historical record with respect to women and
positions of judicial power. And rabbinic sources are thin when it comes to clear statements about
gender and judging. Mishnah Niddah 6:4 states that ‫כל הכשר לדון כשר להעיד‬/“Anyone who is fit to
serve as a judge is fit to serve as a witness. The contrapositive of this statement is that anyone unfit
to be a witness is certainly unfit to be a judge. Given that Mishnah Shevuot 4:1 (among many

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other sources) indicates that women are disqualified from serving as witnesses, women would thus
seem to be invalid to serve as judges. Indeed, Yerushalmi Yoma 6:1 states this plainly: ‫הרי למדנו‬
‫שאין האשה מעידה מעתה אין האשה דנה‬/“We have learned that women may not give testimony, therefore
a woman may not serve as a judge.”
However, the Talmud Bavli opens up the possibility that the Mishnah’s rule is not ironclad. On
Niddah 49b-50a, the Talmud probes the Mishnah’s statement that ‫יש שכשר להעיד שאינו כשר‬
‫לדון‬/“There are some who are fit to serve as witnesses who are not fit to judge.” R. Yohanan states
that this is meant to include a person who is blind in one eye, who is fit to witness, but not fit to
judge. We then hear that R. Yohanan used to allow a blind man in his neighborhood to serve as a
judge, in seeming contradiction to his explication of the Mishnah. The sugya argues that Mishnah
Niddah reflects the view of R. Meir and that R. Yohanan instead preferred the authority of a
different Mishnah, one which suggests that blindness is not a limitation on being a judge. Does this
undermining of the second part of the Mishnah also extend to its first part, perhaps suggesting that
there are some who are valid to judge who are nonetheless invalid as witnesses, such as women?
The Talmud does not explicitly explore this possibility.
[There is also a passage on Gittin 5b that is invoked by some to prove that women are invalid as
judges, and it seems to have been read as such by both Rashi and Ran. However, others read it as a
statement regarding a woman being invalid to judge a case related to her own bill of divorce, such
that it is not a concern of gender, but rather of impartiality. In any event, while the interpretation of
this source by medieval authorities is useful for determining their positions, the Talmudic source
itself is not dispositive.]
In the middle ages, the question of gender and judging receives a bit more attention. Tosafot, in a
number of places, grapple with the contradiction between Devorah’s seeming legitimacy as a judge
and the seeming exclusion of women that results from juxtaposing Mishnah Niddah and Shevuot.
Two main traditions emerge from the school of the Tosafot:

One approach holds that Mishnah Niddah is only speaking about men. All men who are
valid to judge are valid to witness. But women, though they are valid to judge are invalid to
witness. According to this view, women are in fact valid as judges. [This view can be seen
most clearly in Tosafot Bava Kama 15a s.v. asher and Tosafot Gittin 88b s.v. v’lo.]
Another approach holds that women are indeed invalid. Devorah was only valid as a judge
either because she a) was appointed by God or b) simply taught laws without having
coercive legal authority or c) was voluntarily accepted by the people because the divine
presence dwelt upon her. This view also cites the Yerushalmi as supporting evidence.
[Elements of this approach can be seen in the two passages above as well as in Tosafot
Yevamot 45b s.v. mi, Tosafot Shevuot 29b s.v. shevuat and Tosafot Niddah 50a s.v. kol.]

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values

In Part III, we saw R. Yehudah bR. Yom Tov and R. Simhah seemingly implicitly follow the first
view when they validate a woman as a judge in the context of witnessing an immersion for
conversion. Ritva on Kiddushin 35a cites both views detailed above as live positions. So does Sefer
Hahinukh #77, though he indicates a preference for the view that invalidates women. Rosh
Shevuot 4:2 rules like the second view above as well.
Rambam never weighs in on the specific question of gender and judging, but he makes a more
general statement that women may not hold any significant public office, which would seem to
extend to judging as well. Most rishonim don't address this issue one way or the other.
Shulhan Arukh HM 7:4 sides with those who disqualify women from serving as judges, though
Tiferet Ya’akov (R. Ya’akov Gesundheit, Warsaw, 19th c.) there is bothered by the lack of nuance in
disqualifying women, since this was a subject of medieval debate. Indeed, a number of modern
authorities have refused to outright issue a ruling that depends entirely on the disqualification of
women as judges. R. Shlomo Lifshitz—chief rabbi of Warsaw in the early 19th century—in
Responsa Hemdat Shlomo 29-30, discusses a case of a woman who was converted by a group
of women. In his lengthy analysis of this case, he casts doubt on whether it is so obvious that a
convert really needs a beit din in a post facto situation, and even if so, whether it is so obvious that a
group of women would not be sufficient for this purpose. He refuses to cavalierly dismiss the
potential validity of women as judges and minimally sees this as creating a situation of doubt. [See
also Responsa Minhat Yitzhak I:122:17.]
In more recent times, there was a lively debate between R. Hayyim Hirschenson (Israel/United
States, 19th-20th c.) and R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel (Israel, 20th c.) regarding gender and judging. R.
Hirschenson, in Responsa Malki Bakodesh II, argues that women are in fact valid as judges,
contrary to the apparent holding of the Shulhan Arukh! He states that the Talmud marginalizes
Mishnah Niddah 6:4—as we explored above—and there is thus no reason to exclude women as
judges. Furthermore, he argues, even the Tosafot would only have thought that women are not
expected to judge, but not that they are actually disqualified. While some of these readings seem
forced, R. Hirschenson is essentially reviving the ancient and medieval sources that seem to approve
of gender-blind judging. In response, R. Uzziel in Responsa Mishpetei Uzziel Bish’elot
Haz’man #43, attacks his position and argues for the disqualification of women as judges. He
deflects R. Hirschenson’s readings of the Talmud and the Tosafot and insists that any medieval
positions endorsing female judges are overridden by the Yerushalmi and the unequivocal position of
the Shulhan Arukh. Even R. Uzziel, however, argues that a community could theoretically make a
takkanah to accept women as valid judges in their midst. He, writing in the 1930s, thinks this is a
bad idea both for family values and on account of his assessment of women as overly compassionate
and easily hurt, which are traits that can get in the way of the fair—and sometimes necessarily
harsh—administration of justice. Needless to say, some of those considerations seem to have

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values

changed in the intervening years. Though in the context of conversion, which must theoretically be
valid for the entire Jewish people, it is not clear that the acceptance of women as judges in a local
community would be sufficient to anchor a conversion process for people who will almost certainly
move between communities.
There is a last, overarching factor to consider. Even if, as a matter of precedent, one sides with the
restrictive medieval positions, the Shulhan Arukh and R. Uzziel, this all presumes that the category
of “women” is a biological category that can be mapped onto all those with an XX chromosome in
any time or place. This is far from certain. The “woman” who is invalid to judge may be a member
of a sociological category, those who are social adjuncts with insufficient authority to represent the
community and to enforce its will and interpretation of God’s law. This is perhaps most clear in the
following list of people who are invalidated as witnesses:
‫ח‬:‫משנה ראש השנה א‬
‫אלו הן הפסולין המשחק בקוביא ומלוי ברבית ומפריחי יונים וסוחרי שביעית ועבדים זה הכלל כל עדות שאין‬
:‫האשה כשירה לה אף הן אינן כשירים לה‬
Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:8
The following are invalid to testify: A dice-player, one who lends on interest, a pigeon racer,
those who trade in Sabbatical produce and slaves. This is the rule: Any testimony that a
woman is unfit for, they too are unfit for.

The context here groups with women with other characters who lack social status, are lawbreakers
or who otherwise demonstrate detachment from the core stakeholders of society. Their exclusion
in this context hardly seems grounded in biology, but rather in social status. While it is not a simple
matter to jump from this context to a statement that ancient restrictions on female testimony no
longer apply, it is far from safe to assert that such restrictions are clearly in force. One can certainly
imagine treating this question as one axis of doubt, such that when combined with another axis of
doubt—the medieval and modern debates over whether even the Talmudic woman is invalid to
judge, following Tiferet Ya’akov above—one would take a gender-blind approach to judging, even
beginning from conventional rabbinical assumptions surrounding gender and power. This is all the
more relevant when we combine these questions with the ambiguities raised in the other parts of
this essay.
Summary: Devorah is a famous example of a Biblical judge and other narrative rabbinic sources
affirm the notion that a woman could be a judge. Nonetheless, women were classically excluded
from testimony not only in ancient Rome, but in rabbinic law, and several statements indicate that
anyone barred from serving as a witness cannot serve as a judge. In the schools of the Tosafot,
there was some disagreement as to whether women could serve as judges, and the Shulhan Arukh
comes down on the side of those who forbid. Some later authorities assert that this debate was not

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values

fully resolved and the inclusive position might still have a role to play in a broader halakhic
deliberation. In the modern period, some sought to argue for the validity of female judges, though
the broad contours of halakhic consensus remained opposed. In the contemporary world, however,
dramatic shifts in gender roles seem to invite a reassessment of that consensus, which may not be an
appropriate application of halakhic principles and values to contemporary reality.

Conclusion: Possible pathways forward
A growing chorus of voices in recent years has found the black-letter law practice we began with to
be objectionable and untenable in our current environment. Recent scandals have only led to great
conviction among many that the era of women immersing in the presence of men must come to an
end.
One point is certainly fixed: Conversion to Judaism, in a framework faithful to rabbinic texts and
values, necessarily requires an immersion where water comes into contact with all parts of the body
at once.
Another point seems only mildly open for discussion, at least when considered on its own. One
voice in the Tosafot indeed suggests that the beit din is not essentially connected to the act of
immersion, and the Shulhan Arukh seems to endorse this view. However, most medieval voices do
not take this approach, including many other voices in the Tosafot themselves, preferring to see
immersion as the province of the court as well. Furthermore, the Shulhan Arukh, upon citing the
Tosafot, immediately cites Maimonides’ contrary view as well. Moreover, even the Tosafot only
seem to endorse their theory in order to uphold a conversion after the fact. There seems to be
universal preference for the presence of a beit din for the immersion as well. Therefore, any
successful reconsideration of the relative weighting of Tosafot and Maimonides will likely
simultaneously reconsider other factors as well.
A few other paths forward remain.
For some, a sufficient option will be to follow the counsel of a number of recent authorities that
special loose-fitting clothing become a standard part of the immersion for female conversion.
Perhaps male conversions will take on this element as well; for many bodily exposure in same-sex
environments is not experienced as totally safe and proper in our contemporary environment,
particularly in a case of the power gap present between a court and a convert. Nonetheless, others
(both legal authorities and potential converts) may resist such a solution as non-ideal, risking losing
the full symbolism of rebirth at the heart of the conversion ritual. Indeed, it is the very vulnerability
of nudity—so central to discussions focused on abuse of authority—that is part of the core power
of the ritual of conversion through immersion.

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values

Another pathway is to revisit just what the presence of the beit din entails, particularly in
uncomfortable situations. For those not influenced by Maimonides, it is clear that the court’s
presence immediately outside of the room is sufficient. As long as they speak to the convert about
mitzvot while the latter is in the water, the presence requirement has been fulfilled. There was clearly
a longstanding tradition allowing this and there are still many conversion courts that practice this
way. It may also be the case that later codifiers like the Shulhan Arukh adopted Maimonides’
language without intending to endorse every detail of his presentation. Even according to
Maimonides, one might still contend that being immediately outside the room meets his
requirements, and R. Moshe Feinstein seems to support this point, though the exact scope of his
ruling is unclear. Still, there will be authorities (and perhaps even converts) who will resist this
marginalization of Maimonides’ framework, no matter how well textually grounded such resistance
might be. After all, the Talmud does demand that the beit din be in the room with a male convert,
suggesting that physical presence in the room lends more gravity and meaning to the immersion
than when the court stands outside.
There is a final pathway. The most elegant, direct and, in some ways, honest solution to the
problem is to articulate the validity of women to serve as judges on rabbinic courts. In many cases,
all concerns would be addressed if the prospective convert only needed to be exposed to authority
figures of the same gender. And such an approach would also tackle head-on some of the
underlying gender-power concerns that have animated many public discussions of the topic. Many
would then feel that no compromises would then be needed around nude immersion or the physical
presence of the beit din. The halakhic pathway to such an articulation is to assert (minimally) a doubt
with respect to the ongoing vitality of the disqualification of women from witnessing and judging in
our contemporary society and to combine this with a second axis of doubt stemming from the
medieval and modern positions that validate women as judges even without a wholesale reevaluation
of the social categories of gender. For some, this sort of ‫—ספק ספיקא‬permission generated through
two axes of doubt—may be sufficient to resolve the issue comprehensively. Not all will buy this
logic—at least at this point in history—and will find the honesty and transparency of this approach
to be outstripped by what they perceive to be its discontinuity from the deep and immediate past.
Each of these pathways has great merit along with some expected avenues of resistance. Therefore,
perhaps most important will be a flexibility and willingness to consider multiple factors of flexibility
working in tandem to allow for new possibilities. For instance, Michal Tikochinsky has argued for
essentially having conversion courts of three men and three women, with the men standing right
outside the immersion room while three women supervise the female convert, who immerses in
their presence. The argument (as I would put it) would be: Women are plausibly valid to serve as
judges in today’s world according to all opinions, and even if not, they are functioning as emissaries
of the beit din. Even if such a function is not meaningful, the beit din of men can be certain on their
account that the immersion has taken place, making it as if they were in the room. Even if this is

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Center for Jewish Law and Values

insufficient, perhaps the beit din doesn’t need to be there at all. And if such an arrangement is still
not quite comfortable enough for the female convert, perhaps having her immerse in loose-fitting
clothing will assuage some of those concerns as well.
But key will be to recognize that not every convert, nor every community, nor every rabbinic
authority will feel comfortable with a single, uniform approach. Our only hope to move forward—
as is usually the case with halakhah—is to take in the entire picture, to internalize the values of our
sources, even as we appreciate their deep nuance, and to do our best to accept after the fact as valid
even conversions that we might have performed a little bit differently ourselves.

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