Knesset approves law to bar non-Orthodox from ritual baths
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Knesset approves law to bar non-Orthodox from ritual baths

Legislation approved 41-35 after lengthy debate; Jewish Agency slams move that ‘circumvents’ High Court

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

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 Knesset on Monday passed into law a bill that permits regional religious authorities to turn away individuals from using the state-run ritual baths.

The bill was approved in its second and third readings in the plenum after a lengthy debate, with 41 lawmakers in favor and 35 opposed.

Proposed by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, the legislation seeks to circumvent the Supreme Court’s February 12 ruling that Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish communities may use state ritual baths for their conversion ceremonies.

“This is the first time that a mikveh, a place of purity, has become a place of exclusion,” said Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie on Monday. The lawmaker said the legislation sends a message to Diaspora Jewry that the State of Israel doesn’t “count you in. Not at the Western Wall, or in marriage, or in conversions, at the mikvehs too — you have no place in the State of Israel.”

“This law is not Jewish, not legal, not democratic,” she added.

Likud MK Yehuda Glick held a 30-second moment of silence in the plenum over the legislation, which he said was “divisive.”

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)

The Jewish Agency, which has agreed to build up to four ritual baths for use by Israel’s Conservative and Reform communities as part of a compromise, decried the Knesset decision.

“This bill, which offers no solution to the non-Orthodox denominations, circumvents the rulings of the High Court of Justice. It is unfortunate that the bill passed before such a solution was ensured,” Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement.

Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)
Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

Glick said a Jewish Agency representative “told me that they don’t plan to build a single mikveh.” But a spokesman for the agency said “we will be prepared to play our part in any compromise reached by the parties, assuming the budgetary question is resolved.”

Gafni himself rejected the criticism of the new law, saying Monday: “Reform Jews in the US don’t have a single mikveh. All of a sudden they need a mikveh here? This law aims to prevent the Reforms from getting this legitimization through the back door.”

Earlier this month, coalition members were insistent on removing a clause in the original bill which would have also forced all women using the ritual baths to do so according to the standards of Orthodox Jewish law.

“It’s important to clarify that all reference to the methods of women’s immersion was removed [from the law] as we demanded from the start,” wrote Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria on Twitter.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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