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'The government needs to stay out of the mikveh and stay out of our bedrooms'

As ritual bath bill faces stormy waters, women debate Lysistrata-like boycott

With the Knesset resembling reality TV, could a Greek comedy hold the key for religious women protesting more governmental regulation over traditional practices?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) is ejected from the Interior Affairs Committee meeting on a law proposal for changing regulations ritual bath use, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) is ejected from the Interior Affairs Committee meeting on a law proposal for changing regulations ritual bath use, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Mad as hell, these women weren’t going to take it anymore. In a revolt that lasted years, they moved to boycott the mikveh (ritual bath), a monthly requirement after menstruation for Jewish women before resuming sexual relations with their spouses.

It was around 1171 and the newly appointed nagid, or leader, of the Egyptian Jewish community, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, was met with a situation straight out of “Lysistrata.” In the Greek comedy of 411 BCE, women were persuaded to withhold sex until peace was negotiated.

In the Egyptian women’s case, they were seeking autonomy for a religious practice focused around their monthly menstrual cycle.

In what is described as an “organized revolt,” the Egyptian Jewish women rebelled against increasingly stringent laws of ritual purity (niddah) and decided to take a page from Karaite Egyptian neighbors: Abandoning the ritual bath, the Jewish women moved to instead shower after a period of seven ritually pure days following menstruation.

More versed in biblical justice than Greek comedy, Maimonides took a strong stance against the women and squelched the revolt by decreeing that any woman who did not immerse in the ritual bath should be divorced without receipt of the alimony sum agreed upon in her marriage contract (ketubah).

Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)
Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)

Today, in light of the Israeli rabbinate’s increasingly stringent regulations on who can use the state ritual baths and for what purposes, some Israeli women are again pondering if it is time to revisit the plan of their older “sister” Lysistrata.

The clock is ticking on a June 13 vote on contentious and arguably discriminatory legislation in the Knesset. The Gafni Bill — a proposal pushed through by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni as a way to circumvent the Supreme Court’s February 12 ruling that Israel’s Liberal Jewish communities may use state ritual baths for their conversion ceremonies — would give regional religious authorities the discretion to bar individuals from using state ritual baths, regardless of any previous agreements.

Also on the horizon is a June 23 Supreme Court hearing on the right to immerse in state ritual baths according to one’s own custom, as was enshrined in a list of unenforced guidelines distributed by the Religious Affairs Ministry two years ago.

Caught in a battle that is less about an intimate religious practice and more and more about political rivalry and Orthodox control, religiously observant women, Liberal Jews, and brides to be who are required to immerse prior to their weddings wonder what is the best way to raise awareness of these perceived injustices.

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) speaks during the Interior Affairs Committee meeting on a law proposal for changing regulations for ritual baths, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) speaks during the Interior Affairs Committee meeting on a law proposal for changing regulations for ritual baths, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Many think the government should just butt out.

“There should be no government control of the mikveh that is connected to Jewish law and practice,” said feminist scholar Elana Sztokman on Monday. Sztokman and other like-minded individuals are promoting a ritual bath boycott and have taken to debating the boycott idea on closed social media groups, and on their personal pages with the hashtag #JewishLysistrata.

“I think that the government needs to stay out of the mikveh and stay out of our bedrooms,” said Sztokman.

But as evidenced through the circus-like atmosphere at a stormy Internal Affairs Committee hearing on the Gafni Law on June 6, politicians clearly have no intention of bowing out on this issue.

Reality TV via the Knesset Channel

At the start of the committee meeting on Monday, to all appearances, the law that was meant to be discussed had not exactly been fully drafted.

Among others, MK Rachel Azaria objected to holding a hearing on a law that hasn’t been distributed to the parties involved.

“This law is about to harm hundreds of thousands of women who immerse themselves every month, according to Jewish law. It means that the rabbinate will tell women who are immersing themselves according to their mothers’ traditions that they are no longer legal,” said Azaria.

And all hell has broken loose

Posted by Rachel Stomel on Monday, June 6, 2016

The Kulanu MK loudly demanded the cessation of the discussion until the proposed law’s wording was distributed. For “raising her voice,” Azaria was ejected from the meeting by committee head MK David Amsalem of Likud. Interestingly, during a short recess the proposal was prepared for those in attendance.

Although required to produce drafts some 48 hours prior to voting, Gafni and his team seemed surprised that legislators actually wanted copies.

‘This law doesn’t affect women at all’

“I never imagined that the wording of the law would be so important that anyone would need to read it first,” Gafni reportedly said at one point in the discussion.

Once a copy of the proposal was available, it became clear significant changes had been made from an earlier draft.

“I’m looking at both versions of the bill, the old and the new. This is not a revision of the bill. These are two different bills,” said MK Michal Rozin (Meretz).

Amsalem pushed off the Knesset vote until next Monday, or until such time as the wording of the Gafni Law is acceptable to those signed on it, including members of the coalition who must vote in a bloc from Jewish Home and Kulanu.

The new proposal reduced the threat of intervention in women’s personal practices, but stonewalled the Reform and Conservative movement’s use of the ritual bath for conversion purposes. In extremely awkward language, the new proposal essentially states that regional religious councils may disallow use of their state ritual baths, regardless of any previous agreements.

“This law doesn’t affect women at all,” Gafni said Monday.

In the aftermath of the law’s first reading on March 17, Gafni explained to lawmakers that “the issue here is that they want to have conversions in the mikvehs, when that’s not the purpose of a mikveh. Ritual immersions are guided by halacha [Jewish law], they aren’t Turkish baths.”

Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay (Shas, left) and MK David Amsalem (Likud) at the Internal Affairs Committee meeting on a proposed law to change regulations at ritual baths, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay (Shas, left) and MK David Amsalem (Likud) at the Internal Affairs Committee meeting on a proposed law to change regulations at ritual baths, on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Also after the first reading, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay (Shas) vowed to maintain a zero tolerance policy toward “any attempt to interfere or change halachic guidelines.”

“These groups that seek to change the Torah and halacha are not Israeli religious movements,” Azoulay said. “With all due respect to their Zionism and support for the State of Israel, we won’t allow them control us remotely or damage the country’s Jewish character.”

On Monday, however, Azoulay stated at the Knesset meeting that “the Western Wall is open, and the ritual baths are open to all who wish to use them.”

In response to the new draft, freshman Likud MK Yehudah Glick chastised those involved, stating, “As an religiously observant person, I’m saddened that a group decides, ‘We’re guarding Judaism and all others are destroying it.’ Why not embrace? It is true there are coalition agreements, but this law is bad, and that’s an understatement.”

Turning to Azoulay, Glick said, “Nothing will happen if someone immerses himself who doesn’t think exactly like you.”

‘This circus must end’

Speaking to The Times of Israel following Monday’s steamy session, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie accused Gafni of “bullying” women who were caught up in the “political tool” of his law.

Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)
Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)

“This circus must end,” said Lavie, who in 2013 proposed a more lenient mikveh bill. While she feels the Gafni law will not stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny, Lavie, alluding to the Maimonides-era boycott, said that women should use every means to push back against the legislation.

“Of course I support such a campaign,” said Lavie when asked about a contemporary boycott. She said there are many excessively stringent ritual baths — especially in Jerusalem — and women should use all appropriate means to circumvent them. She noted that there are other alternatives for women, including natural bodies of water and ritual baths at small settlements that are known to be sensitive to privacy and freedom of religion.

It is these human rights issues that also interest lawyer Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice. The law, said Weiss, “is a terrible expansion of the status quo and infringement on right to privacy, equality, freedom of and from religion.”

In 2013, Weiss successfully litigated the right of single women to use state ritual baths through the adoption of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Like Lavie, Weiss said the Gafni law “can’t stand an attack based on our constitutional laws.”

Well aware that the wheels of justice on religion and state issues turn slowly — many of Weiss’s clients’ petitions take years, even a decade to be heard — she supported grassroots efforts to raise awareness.

Lawyer Susan Weiss, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ), at a March 29, 2016 press briefing at the Jerusalem Press Club. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Lawyer Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, at a March 29, 2016, press briefing at the Jerusalem Press Club. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“I’m all for the Lysistrata-type religious disobedience in order to make change,
but I don’t know how realistic it is to rally all these women to make change in this way. If they manage to do it, all power to them,” said Weiss on Monday.

She questions, however, what the women would be fighting for exactly.

“I would love to see the women saying that the state has no right to monitor their bodies in any way, including for purposes of marriage,” said Weiss. “Are they protesting they don’t want the balanit [a ritual bath attendant who supervises the immersion]?”

“The law is to hurt the Reform and Conservative — but that also is outrageous. I would like to see them protest all of that,” said Weiss.

Sztokman, the driving force behind the slowly growing ritual bath boycott, thinks the issue of mikveh regulation goes well beyond religious women and Liberal Jewry’s conversions.

Feminist thinker and author Elana Sztokman courtesy)
Feminist thinker and author Elana Sztokman courtesy)

“A woman has to stand naked and be bodily inspected by a person she never met, and then report on that to the marriage registrar in order to get married. Where in the world would this be deemed acceptable behavior? There are a zillion ways that this experience can be traumatic. And yet, we have allowed the state to force this on all Jewish women wanting to get married. It is profoundly wrong,” said Sztokman.

“We’re not yet at a critical mass of women ready to take this on. But I’m still testing the waters, no pun intended,” said Sztokman.

Others question the efficacy of such a boycott.

“I don’t know if women stopping going to the mikveh would matter. It’s more about being able to regulate who’s in control,” said Rachel Stomel, a representative of Chochmat Nashim, an activist group of religious women seeking social justice. She described how a woman proclaiming she would never again enter a mikveh was met by indifference by religious leaders at the Knesset committee meeting. “The rabbinate is not invested in whether women go to the mikveh or not.”

“On the one hand this is about the mikveh — it’s on the frontlines — but really it’s about coalition agreements and power struggles. The mikveh is just the arena for them,” said Stomel.

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