A religious married woman stands, unclothed, in front of a ritual bath attendant. She is circled and inspected for errant strands of hair, earrings or nail polish.
In every other forum in her life, she is dressed modestly — often from head to toe. Here at the ritual bath, a place religiously observant women must visit every month seven days after the end of menstruation, she is questioned on matters of excruciating intimacy.
Several Supreme Court cases, both active and resolved, and even a set of 10 protocols released in 2014 by the Ministry of Religious Affairs under then deputy minister Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home), have fought for a woman’s right for privacy at the mivkeh. A new law proposed by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) that would place the ritual baths under the authority of the Israeli chief rabbinate threatens to unravel these women’s privacy protections.
Gafni began collecting signatures from fellow MKs for his proposed law after the Supreme Court ruled that the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel may use the state ritual baths for their conversions.
Head of the Israeli Reform Movement Gilad Kariv told The Times of Israel in a recent interview that his movement performs some 500 conversions a year. Kariv added that many of the children adopted abroad, and presumably those born by surrogates abroad, convert their babies through a Reform conversion. (Since a 2002 Supreme Court decision, those converted in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movement may register with the Interior Ministry as Jewish.)
In Israel, public ritual baths are currently run under the auspices of local municipalities, all of which have religious life committees that in many cases also include women. Last week’s Supreme Court ruling established that since the baths are publicly funded, there must be an evenhanded approach regarding those who are allowed to use them.
For Gafni, moving oversight of the ritual baths to the chief rabbinate is a twofold victory: In making them a religious matter — like marriage or divorce, which are legally unavailable for the Reform and Conservative movements — the chief rabbinate would have the ability to block the use of the baths by the Liberal Jewish movements. At the same time, the switch of authority would also fundamentally alter the way the majority of the ritual baths’ customers — Modern Orthodox women — use them. By putting the baths under the chief rabbinate’s auspices, they would be forced to follow the institution’s overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox approach.
According to a list found on the website of the Eden Center, whose mission is to train bath attendants to be more compassionate and calls itself “a mikveh education center,” some 10,000 secular women have their first, and in many cases, only experience with the ritual bath ahead of marriage. However, some 750,000 observant women, the overwhelming majority of which are in the spectrum of Modern Orthodox to Religious Zionists — make regular use of the mikveh.
It is therefore counterintuitive to see signatories on Gafni’s bill from Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, whose constituents are largely Modern Orthodox.
In 2014, while minister of Religious Affairs, Bennett’s deputy minister Ben Dahan released a 10-point set of protocols for privacy in the ritual bath. Among the points was the right of a woman to decline help from bath attendants.
“If the woman who is preparing to immerse in the ritual bath is not interested in receiving the services of the bath attendant, including inspection, the attendant must not delay her immersion and shall not ask her any questions… One must emphasize the need for total privacy in the ritual bath, and thus the attendant must not ask questions that may infract on the woman’s privacy,” read the protocols.
In a long letter sent to several Jewish Home MKs ahead of a party meeting on Monday, Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim, asks the signatories to rethink their support. Itim, an NGO which helps Israelis, including new immigrants, navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy, is also involved in a Supreme Court case petitioning on behalf of 13 women for their freedom of autonomy in the ritual bath.
Putting the ritual baths under the chief rabbinate’s authority, Farber told The Times of Israel on Sunday, essentially asserts a new monopoly for the rabbinate and “emasculates women from any authority in the mikveh.”
With Jewish Home support behind Gafni’s proposal, he said, “they’re disenfranchising not just the Reform and Conservative movements, but the ‘bread and butter’ of their community — the Religious Zionists.”