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In about-face, rabbinate says attendant not mandatory in ritual bath

In Israeli religious authorities’ allowing women to immerse in the mikveh in privacy, some see a possible recognition of other ways of expressing Judaism

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

Illustrative photo of a ritual bath attendant, a woman who checks that the immersion in the bath is kosher according to the Jewish tradition. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of a ritual bath attendant, a woman who checks that the immersion in the bath is kosher according to the Jewish tradition. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

In a last-minute move ahead of a scheduled High Court of Justice hearing on Thursday, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has agreed to allow ritual bath use without the supervision of an attendant.

The case’s petitioner is Itim, a group that aids Israelis in navigating the state’s religious bureaucracy, which is demanding a woman’s right to immerse herself in privacy.

The current Itim case only deals with women, not the question of Reform and Conservative use of the ritual bath, which was decided in February. But in light of this current decision respecting a woman’s right to privacy, there are those who say it also reaffirms the right of all to practice their particular Jewish traditions in the ritual bath.

According to Eden, a “mikveh education center,” some 750,000 observant women make regular use of the mikveh, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the Modern Orthodox-Religious Zionist camps. Additionally, approximately 10,000 secular women each year have what is in many cases their only experience with the ritual bath ahead of their wedding.

Currently, public ritual baths are run under the auspices of local municipalities. A February 12 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 and they must be available for liberal Jews’ use as well.

In a heated response to this ruling, the Knesset has also jumped into the ritual bath waters with a bill that was approved last week for its first reading.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni’s controversial mikveh bill would give regional religious authorities the discretion to bar individuals from using state ritual baths, regardless of any previous agreements. However, after a turbulent first committee hearing, the revised version omits any mention of requiring women to immerse in accordance with an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

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)

The state attorney and religious authorities’ response to the Itim petition bolsters the Knesset bill’s relative hands-off approach vis a vis women and the mikveh.

In a document signed by Deputy Prosecutor Roi Shweika, the State of Israel answered on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Markedly, the response does not include the Jerusalem religious council and other regional councils which appear on the petition.

In the June 22 response, the chief rabbinate states it is against Jewish law to allow immersion in ritual baths without an attendant and will hang signs to that affect in the ritual baths, but it has agreed nevertheless to the privacy demand made by Itim.

While the Jerusalem religious authorities did not originally sign on with the chief rabbinate in allowing women to immerse as they wish, by Wednesday afternoon it did, and the Thursday High Court of Justice hearing was cancelled. Itim plans to request that its demands be ratified in the very near future into a state decision, which will obligate the religious authorities to allow immersion without supervision. In return, Itim will drop its suit.

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Interestingly, Itim’s demands were, for the most part, already ratified by the Ministry of Religious Affairs two years ago. In 2014, the ministry 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. These protocols were released under the previous government, when Jewish Home’s MK Eli Ben-Dahan was leading the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Speaking a few hours after receiving the chief rabbinate’s decision on Wednesday, head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber took a philosophically optimistic approach to the chief rabbinate’s agreement.

“They [the rabbinate] have their halachic position, but understand there are more positions than just their own. I think this is a good example of allowing and respecting people’s rights that are different than those of their own,” said Farber.

‘I think this is a good example of allowing and respecting people’s rights that are different than those of their own’

“I think it represents a new model of how religious services can work in Israel,” said Farber.

Tzohar, an Israeli rabbinic organization that attempts to bridge the widening gaps between religious and secular citizens, released a statement saying it “salutes” the Chief Rabbinate’s decision.

“This decision will ensure that countless women can firmly embrace the traditional mitzvah [commandment] of immersion in the mikveh. We view this as a further important step forward in promoting Jewish practice and halacha in Israel in an atmosphere of love and acceptance rather than coercion,” said Tzohar.

Could this be an opening of the door on acceptance of differing religious practices? Possibly, said Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality.

Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)
Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)

“The good news is that the Chief Rabbinate has been forced to fold in the presence of the principles of Israeli law,” said Regev in response while in New York. However, with that, a careful reading of the state’s response “teaches us about how the Chief Rabbinate is firmly gripping onto the idea that Jewish law forbids women from immersion without attendants.”

Regev said it is clear that while the Chief Rabbinate chose to “bow its head” before the law, it is still “disengaged from the emerging Jewish reality and its positions are ultra-Orthodox and extreme.”

Regev said that “this current case teaches us an important precedent.” If extrapolated to the issue of the immersion of non-Orthodox converts, it shows that “the world will not end if the High Court of Justice’s ruling is enforced.”

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