Public mikvehs routinely violate women’s right to immerse alone, study finds

Analysis by ITIM group reveals that only 188 of 320 of ritual bathhouses in large cities say they comply with a 2016 ruling on the issue

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

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)

Shortly after her wedding, a religiously observant Jewish woman from Jerusalem came to her neighborhood mikveh — a special bath designed for a ritual cleansing ceremony — with a straightforward request: to be alone for her immersion.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, was left in tears after that experience in 2021, she said, because a local female mikveh attendant, or balanit in Hebrew, refused to comply with her request, despite a 2016 Supreme Court ruling affirming the right to privacy at mikvehs.

“I wanted to be on my own in the mikveh in the first place to assert my autonomy over how I practice my faith,” the woman, who has since changed to another mikveh, told The Times of Israel. “Arguing over it with the balanit achieved the opposite, as did being eventually coerced into complying with what she decided the experience would be like for me.”

According to a new report by Itim, a nonprofit aiming to help Jews and people converting to Judaism navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy, the failure of the mikveh in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem to comply with the law is part of a pattern of noncompliance: Of 320 public mikvehs surveyed by Itim, only 188 said they would let women immerse without supervision.

The report, which encompasses all public mikvehs in large cities, outlines an aspect of a broader issue of religious bodies’ noncompliance with court rulings, which is adding a layer of complexity to the societal conflict around the judiciary, questions of religion and state, and the balance of power between the branches of government.

“The people running religious bodies feel, as they should, beholden to tradition as they perceive it,” Rabbi Shaul Farber, the founder of Itim, told The Times of Israel. “When those traditions conflict with the principles of a modern, democratic state, there is sometimes tension and noncompliance.”

Nora Edri is a “balanit,” a woman who checks that dipping in the water of the mikveh is done right and is kosher according to Jewish tradition. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

The Religious Council of Jerusalem, responsible for mikvehs, disputed the unnamed woman’s account, insisting in a response letter to Itim’s complaint about her case that the balanit had left immediately after the woman asked to be alone. The woman “may have been seeking to cause a provocation” or “was emotional and teary, as is common with mikveh goers in their first year of marriage,” the letter said.

The denial added insult to injury, the woman said. “Not only did they dismiss my complaint and defend the balanit; they besmirched me, calling me a provocateur or a hysterical person,” she told The Times of Israel.

In retrospect, the woman said she should have pulled out her cellphone and filmed the exchange. “It’s a horrible thing to bring a camera into a mikveh, but this is the situation after all trust has been broken,” she said.

In her new mikveh, the woman still needs to insist on immersing alone in the face of the attendants’ suggestions that one of them be present during at least part of the ritual. “Now I know the law, I know the 2016 ruling on mikvehs and I just tell them calmly but insistently that it’s my right and I intend to exercise it. It usually works,” the woman said.

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM (Courtesy)

Devout women typically go to mikveh once a month after their menstrual cycle has ended. Menstruation brings about a state of ritual impurity, according to halacha, Jewish Orthodox law, so that husbands and wives are forbidden from having sexual relations during and in the days following the menstruation period.

In some mikvehs, a balanit reminds women that they are not to enter while menstruating. Some instruct women on how to verify that their menstruation has stopped. Others insist on seeing proof of this – usually, the clean cloth that the woman had used to inspect herself. Some even help with the inspection, usually when requested to.

Following the 2016 ruling, some mikvehs began insisting that women who wish to immerse unaccompanied sign a legal waiver.

Some women experience the balanit’s questioning, and even presence, as an invasion of their privacy at a vulnerable time (halacha requires bathers be naked during immersion). In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled on a petition filed by Itim on behalf of multiple women that “if the prospective immerser requests to immerse herself without the company of an attendant or alone, she must not be prevented from doing so.”

Following the ruling, the Religious Services Ministry issued a directive to all mikvehs to comply with the ruling. But six years later, compliance is partial, the Itim inquiry showed. In Jerusalem, employees at 15 mikvehs out of the city’s 35 recognized public ones told women who presented themselves as prospective bathers that they could not enter the water unaccompanied. Another 15 said they allow it and five would not give a clear answer.

In Tel Aviv and its environs, 29 out of 45 mikvehs said yes, nine said no and the remaining seven gave no clear answer. In Haifa, which has 20 mikvehs, seven said yes, six said no and seven wouldn’t answer.

Farber, the founder of Itim, has no statistics on how many women wish to immerse unaccompanied, but his group has spoken to dozens of them, he said. “The issue of demand is connected to awareness of the fact that women have the right to go unaccompanied,” he added. “As the awareness grows, so does the number of women who insist on this right.”

Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mikveh operators and others in the religious bureaucracy “sometimes have a hostile attitude to rulings by the Supreme Court, and this complicates matters, especially in the current atmosphere,” Farber added, referencing the acrimonious debate about religion and state amid the conflict about the judicial overhaul promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. His Likud party and five religious coalition partners seek to curtail the judiciary by transferring some of its powers to the executive and legislative branches.

Some of the tension around this issue is evidenced in how the religious court system in recent years has issued rulings that run counter to Supreme Court rulings, including on the religious courts’ jurisdiction in determining child support for children of divorced parents. A bill submitted in July seeks to cement the religious courts’ jurisdiction. It is seen by many as a challenge to the Supreme Court’s authority as part of the judicial overhaul.

But initial noncompliance by religious bodies has in the past shifted gradually to compliance, Farber noted.

Noncompliance is pervasive in mikvehs “in light of the intimacy of the immersion, where dialog about it happens between very few people,” Farber said. “Balaniot at mikvehs are women who often are not aware of the Supreme Court rulings and the legal definition of their roles, and who operate under the instruction of the local rabbi.”

The Religious Services Ministry did not reply to a query by The Times of Israel on Itim’s mikveh report.

Most Popular
read more: