A Jerusalem court ruled Tuesday that the Jerusalem Religious Council was intimidating women from immersing in a mikveh, or ritual bath, without the presence of an attendant.
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that women had the right to refuse the supervision of an attendant, known as a balanit, when immersing in the ritual bath. Until that ruling, the presence of the attendant during the immersion process was mandatory for women.
However, in Jerusalem, women were forced to sign a waiver before being permitted to dip alone. The form asked women to waive any legal claims against the mikveh and accept legal responsibility for damages that might ensue from immersion. Women were also asked to sign the form with their full name, their identification card number and the date on which they entered the mikveh.
The ITIM Jewish Advocacy organization went to court, protesting that the waiver was intended to intimidate women and prevent them from immersing without another woman supervising them.
The Religious Affairs Ministry had criticized the waiver in a letter sent last July. “We think that the intention of this document is to deter women from immersing without the presence of a balanit,” the letter read. “This harms the women’s right to personal privacy.”
Jerusalem District Court Judge Oded Shaham did not accept the claim of the Jerusalem council that the form absolved it of responsibility should anything happen when the woman was alone in the water.
He suggested that the religious council cease the procedure immediately, and its representatives agreed to do so.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, praised the court’s decision. “This is a great example of how Israel’s democratic institutions can help regulate the radicalization that is taking place in the religious establishment,” he said.
The issue of female ritual immersion is an extremely personal one: It revolves around the menstruation cycle and directly impacts whether a husband and wife are allowed to have sexual relations under halacha, or Jewish law. As such it is a subject that is referred to very delicately among religious circles, if at all. (While some men also choose to ritually purify themselves, male immersion in the mikveh does not usually carry the halachic urgency of female immersion.)
While it is technically permissible within the confines of halacha for a woman to dip alone, stringencies recommend that she do it in the presence of the balanit, who can ensure that she is entirely under the water.
Because marriage in Israel is performed exclusively through the Chief Rabbinate, ceremonies for Jews of all denominations conform to Orthodox law. One of the prerequisites is that brides-to-be must visit a mikveh and provide written documentation to the effect that they immersed and are now ritually permissible to their future husbands.
The Eden Center, a Jerusalem-based mikveh initiative, estimates that 30,000 women visit a mikveh regularly in the Jerusalem area, and that 750,000 go nationwide. Most of those who immerse each month are religious, though some less-observant women cherish the ritual as well, and it has long been a symbol connecting families to Jewish tradition. For some, it is a choice they make to indulge their more religious partners.
Yaakov Schwartz contributed to this report.