The Religious Affairs Ministry on Thursday issued new rules permitting religiously observant Israeli women to immerse in ritual baths without the presence of an attendant.
The rule change brings to an end a saga that began in July last year, when the ITIM Advocacy Center — which helps Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy — took the matter to the Supreme Court.
The petition against the Chief Rabbinate and the Jerusalem Religious Council called for women to be allowed to use the state-run ritual bath (mikveh) according to their personal customs, without supervision, or with their own attendant if they wished.
The organization charged that the Chief Rabbinate was not implementing directives issued in late 2013 that enabled women to use the mikveh facilities without being asked invasive questions by attendants.
The petition said some customs were being imposed on bathers, such as removing earrings, or covering the hair while making a blessing, which some Jewish law authorities or sources maintained were not required.
In one case, a woman was prevented from using the mikveh because of her hairstyle, even though she had invited the mikveh attendant to consult with her own rabbi.
In another, a woman was asked how many times she planned to immerse herself, and when the answer was unsatisfactory to the attendant, the woman was prevented from using the public facility altogether.
The new rules stress that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still believes the presence of an attendant to be important for the fulfillment of religious obligations, but add that a woman should be allowed to immerse in private if she so desires.
The rules, written by the Religious Affairs Ministry’s director general, note that a woman may immerse herself without an attendant so long as she wears a gown, is accompanied by a friend, and summons an attendant once she is already immersed.
Rabbi Seth Farber, chairman of Itim, said in a statement: “We salute the decision of the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs to respond to the wishes of thousands of women who want to immerse themselves in the ritual bath but want to do it in their own way.”
According to Jewish law, women must purify themselves through ritual immersion after menstruation and childbirth, before they can resume sexual relations with her husband. Brides must also immerse in the mikveh before marriage.
The Eden “mikveh education center” says that some 750,000 observant women in Israel make regular visits to the mikveh, 30,000 of them in Jerusalem. A further 10,000 secular woman go to the mikveh before marriage, as required by the Chief Rabbinate.