Taking Back the Mikveh

Just one week after International Women’s Day, a group of women and men gathered outside the Prime Minister’s office this past Sunday to protest against proposed legislation that would severely restrict access to mivkaot (ritual baths). This new “mivkeh bill” would override a February Supreme Court decision that allowed Reform and Conservative converts to use state-funded mikvaot. The bill, sponsored by ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset, has wider implications for all women who use mikvaot regularly: it requires mikveh attendants to be present during the entire immersion process, effectively placing ritual baths, under the direct control of the Rabbinate. This would render a Reform or Conservative conversion, or even Orthodox women observing this ritual according to their personal customs, an illegal act.

“The bill violates the rights of the individual as well as freedom of worship, which is a basic right,” said Keren Hadad Taub, coordinator of Advot and a former ritual bath attendant. Advot is a Shatil-guided group that works to improve the experience of women at ritual baths and advocates for the fair employment of ritual bath attendants. “This bill tells a woman how she has to immerse herself ritually, and this was never the case. The Shulchan Aruch (the Jewish ‘rulebook’) has rules but it also states that ritual immersion is the sole responsibility of the woman. Until today, the rabbinate’s responsibility was solely for the physical structure, the building. This law would change that.”

Many religious leaders have voiced their opposition to the proposed law. Aaron Leibowitz, an Orthodox rabbi present at the demonstration, told those assembled that Jewish law can be responsive to the needs of women and allow for greater freedom for women to use the mivkeh according to their needs.

“This bill would give a small group of Orthodox male rabbis complete control over women’s ritual immersion in a way that violates the rights of women who want to immerse alone or to do so according to non-Orthodox practices,” said Ronny Shapira Chisdai, the new Shatil religious women’s project coordinator.

Chisdai speaks for many when she describes her personal mikvah experience: “Like everyone who uses themikvah, I have to stand each month naked in front of a woman I don’t know. Before my wedding, when I was as stressed as could be, the attendant stood opposite me, examined by body, told me I had to shower again, clean my nails again…I came to fulfill a commandment; it was unpleasant and humiliating to be looked at and examined in that way.

“We came here today to say that this mitzvah (commandment) is our responsibility. That we should be able to immerse in our own way. That the attendants need to trust us and let us have this responsibility. Especially for women who have been sexually abused or have had a mastectomy, the way it’s done now can be a nightmare.”

Advot, which grew out of a Shatil-led mikveh initiative several years ago, is one of several groups working for change within the religiously-observant community that partners with Shatil as part of its effort to strengthen moderate voices within Orthodoxy in Israel.

April 2016