Attorney general opposes bill barring non-Orthodox from ritual baths

Avichai Mandelblit says proposal harms Israel’s religious freedoms and is unconstitutional

A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday said a bill that would bar Conservative and Reform conversions from taking place at public ritual baths in Israel was unconstitutional and compromises religious freedoms.

In a letter to the government outlining his legal position, Mandelblit ruled the bill, which passed its first Knesset reading Wednesday, runs counter to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and said it would not be defensible in the High Court of Justice.

According to the legislation proposed by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, the country’s ritual baths, or mikvehs, will only be allowed to operate according to the instructions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

A statement from the Yerushalmim activist group praised the attorney general’s decision, saying it “strengthens and proves the claim that every woman has the right to autonomy over her body and her submersing [in the bath], in privacy and according to her customs.”

The bill, which passed Wednesday with a 42-38 majority, is designed to override a February Supreme Court decision mandating public mikvehs be open to non-Orthodox Jews undergoing conversion.

File: Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on January 17, 2016. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
File: Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on January 17, 2016. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Addressing the plenum after the vote last week, Gafni rebuffed criticism his bill essentially excluded Conservative and Reform Jews from public religious life, saying he was only seeking to “fix what we see as a misguided ruling.”

“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,” he told lawmakers.

“We want to keep situation the way it is, and don’t want to cause any unnecessary tension,” Gafni said, noting that privately-owned baths could be used for non-Orthodox conversion rituals.

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.

February’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 more liberal Jewish streams.

David Azoulay, Minister for Religious Services and an MK from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, welcomed the Knesset approval last week and 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,” he said before charging that local Reform and Conservative movements often reported “inflated numbers” in order to bolster their influence in Israel.

“They can hold as many ceremonies or folklore customs they wish, but Judaism is not like some kind of theater where you just show up to enjoy yourself,” he 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.”

Opposition MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) shot back at Gafni and Azoulay, saying the two MKs were “driving us all crazy.

“You introduced a law in order to circumvent the Supreme Court, you don’t care about mikvehs, what interests you is gaining a foothold. You’re waging a thug-like, extortionate fight against ‘those people,’ who, have a name — Reform and Conservative. Who gave you the right to monopolize Judaism?”

Amanda Borschel-Dan and Tamar Pillegi contributed to this report.

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