The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that people undergoing a non-Orthodox Jewish conversation are entitled to immerse themselves in a public ritual bath as part of the ceremony, striking down a lower court’s decision to the contrary.
The justices accepted an appeal by the Masorti Movement and the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel against a ruling which banned non-Orthodox converts from using state-funded mikvehs.
The Supreme Court’s decision was hailed as a victory for non-Orthodox streams and a blow to the Chief Rabbinate. Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called it “outrageous.”
The court made clear that while it ruled on a specific case against the religious authorities in Beersheba, where the case was first discussed, its ruling applies throughout Israel.
The appellants argued that immersing in a mikveh as part of the process of conversion ought to be considered a “religious service” and as such should be provided by local religious authorities by law, with no distinction between conversion or other ritual needs. The appellants added that the attempt to distinguish between people using the mikveh when converting in the state’s official program and those converting via an alternative stream constituted illegal discrimination.
They contended that in so doing, the religious authorities in Beersheba also discriminated in granting services, products, and entry to public facilities.
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who ruled in the case along with Salim Joubran and Chief Justice Miriam Naor, wrote in the decision, according to Haaretz: “Once it established public mikvehs and put them at the service of the public – including for the process of conversion – the state cannot but be evenhanded in allowing their use.”
“The State of Israel is free to supervise the use of its mikvehs, so long as it does so in an egalitarian manner,” he added. “The state’s choice not to supervise immersion done as part of private conversion programs does not justify the prevention of such immersion.”
Chief Rabbi Yosef said the court’s “miserable decision to allow reform Jews and Conservatives to immerse in mikveh baths intended to serve the entire public is outrageous. Reform Jews are making use of halacha for their needs when it is convenient and are undermining the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. The court cannot on the one hand satisfy a small minority, and on the other gravely harm thousands of Jews interested in Jewish life according to halacha and in keeping the true Jewish identity of the state.”
Representatives of the non-Orthodox movements commended the court’s decision.
Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess said that the ruling “echoes from Jerusalem to the edge of the land, and will resonate across the wide Jewish world,” calling it “a clear decision that Conservative and Reform Jews are not stepchildren in the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of Reform Jews in the country, said the verdict “is another significant step on the road to full recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.” He promised: “We will continue the effort to complete this journey in the coming years.”