As the novel coronavirus spreads across Israel, religious establishments of all sorts have been forced to close down. But while yeshivas, synagogues and day schools have all been shuttered by the government, there is still one institution that has remained open: the mikveh.
Every month, Orthodox women of all stripes immerse in the waters of this ritual bath in a cleansing rite which allows them to resume intimate relations with their husbands following menstruation, giving the small pools an outsized importance in Jewish law and culture.
But while the government has so far allowed mikvehs to remain open, the current pandemic has caused some women to rethink their observance of this time-honored Jewish rite. This is especially true after several were temporarily shut down last week after a coronavirus patient immersed in them. (All were reopened after the water was changed and surfaces were cleaned.)
“Women are very nervous about going,” Naomi Marmon Grumet of the Eden Center, an organization that works to improve women’s mikveh experiences, told the Times of Israel. “We’ve fielded hundreds of inquiries from mikveh attendants and from women who want to use the mikveh.”
“I know many women who are not going and many who are,” she said, adding that she understood that the number of women going to the mikveh in Jerusalem had “dropped significantly.”
Marmon Grumet said that part of the anxiety stems from an open letter written by Rabbanits Sarah Segal-Katz and Chana Adler-Lazarovits prior to the imposition of the new rules, recommending that women avoid the mikveh for the duration of the crisis. The pair cited a 2015 report by the Institute for Zionist Strategies stating that three quarters of Israeli mikvehs were operating without a business license and lacked sufficient oversight.
Saying they had interviewed numerous mikveh attendants, they expressed concern that recent government guidelines were “not applicable in most mikvehs,” some of which had not been provided supplies for disinfection.
“With great sorrow we can only conclude that a woman cannot immerse herself in the mikveh,” they wrote, explaining that without clarity on the level of sterilization at mikvehs, it would be better to be stringent on the Jewish legal imperative to preserve life.
“The ritual baths are not properly regulated,” she told The Times of Israel. “We also had many conversations with tens of mikveh attendants in the field and women who were immersing and we received feedback that the situation was not good: that nobody gave them specific instructions and if they got the instructions they were instructed to call the religious council if there are problems and there was no representative of the Health Ministry in the field.”
However, Dr. Deena Zimmerman, a yoetzet halacha (adviser on Jewish law) affiliated with Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, said “much effort has been put into improvement in the last 5 years and even more so since the beginning of the epidemic.”
“There is constant communication between the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Religion on the issue of the mikvaot. In the last week there has been a very significant effort made by the Ministry of Religion to get the information to the mikveh attendants via a Zoom conference. There are multiple statements released by both with up to date information,” Zimmerman told The Times of Israel.
“There is room for women to be educated consumers and press for best possible conditions, but stating that this is a life threatening situation that should lead all women not to immerse is just not [accurate] information.”
According to the latest guidelines from the ministries of Religious Services and Health, all mikveh appointments must be made in advance, women must not congregate in or near the mikveh and its water must be regularly changed and chlorinated. And while women usually prepare themselves for their immersion by bathing and cleaning themselves in the mikveh’s bathroom, all preparations must now be made at home.
“We ask women to prepare at home in order to minimize the amount of time they are outside the home,” explained Chief Rabbinate spokesman Kobi Alter. “We are much more careful about disinfection and, of course, a woman who has to be in quarantine cannot go to the mikveh. It is a very important mitzvah but it has to be done according to the highest standard of hygiene.”
Going to the mikveh is perfectly safe “if it’s properly maintained and approved by the Health Ministry,” Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Times of Israel.
“If it’s by appointment only and all the distancing and water standards are kept and there is oversight by the Health Ministry, I think it’s important to continue.”
Seth Farber, a modern Orthodox rabbi whose organization, Itim, helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, recently sent a letter to the ministries of Religious Services and Health calling for “the closing of all mikvehs immediately that do not have an active license” and calling for the widespread distribution of chlorine kits.
“It is imperative that a dual strategy be implemented in the present crisis: we need to insure women’s safety and confidence, while at the same time do our utmost to keep mikvehs open for the women who need them,” he said. “We should not simply ‘rely’ on established norms or assume anything. Rather, we must increase oversight and implementation of new norms to make this religious practice possible during this difficult time.”
The Health Ministry did not respond to the Times of Israel’s inquiries about how it is handling the issue.
While advocating that every woman make up her own mind about immersion, the Eden Center’s Marmon Grumet told the Times of Israel they she knows of “many mikvehs in this country that are being extremely careful” and that the Health Ministry “knows how to close things down if they are not safe.”
Personally checking on the status of your local mikveh is imperative, said Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, co-founder of the Orthodox women’s organization Chochmat Nashim.
“Women should do two things,” she said, “call their local authority and ask if the mikveh has been tested and if the attendant has been told what to do and if the answer is no they should pressure their city’s religious council.”
Citing her own hometown of Beit Shemesh, Jaskoll said that the local mikvehs had already been inspected by the Health Ministry and that “women shouldn’t fear to go.”
“Especially in these times when a lot of women need family support and affection, not going to mikveh for most Orthodox women means no comfort from their husbands. It’s vital for an Orthodox woman’s life. Some women are terrified and do not know what to do. Some are angry and think its a risk and that they should be shut down. I don’t believe they should be closed down. It would cause tremendous hardship for a lot of women and families. I tend to want to be able to give people the choice.”
One woman who attended a mikveh just as the new regulations were coming into effect told The Times of Israel that while she was initially hesitant, the experience was largely positive.
“I prepared at home and then when I got there the ladies were wearing masks and gloves. It was very clean,” said the woman, a Hasid who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Esti.
“Definitely for me as an anxious person it was difficult when they said they would not check me but in the end they did without touching,” she said, referring to the checks that mikveh attendants do before allowing women to immerse.
Men’s mikvehs are a different story. While Jewish law mandates that women immerse in the mikveh, its use among men is merely customary, with many in the ultra-Orthodox community taking a dip every morning before prayers.
Earlier this month, all men’s mikvehs were shut down by order of the Religious Services Ministry but were subsequently reopened several days later under condition that strict social distancing rules be observed. While a woman attending mikveh is engaged in a solitary experience, men’s mikvehs are generally much more of a social scene, with crowded changing rooms and large baths which can accommodate several people immersing at once.
All men's ritual baths in Israel have been ordered shut by the Ministry of Religious Affairs– but not the women's ritual baths.
*I am not joking* pic.twitter.com/U9z5RxfImk
— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) March 15, 2020
However, as the Health Ministry’s social distancing regulations became increasingly stringent, it was decided to close all men’s mikvehs for good last week, said Rabbinate spokesman Kobi Alter.
“Men’s mikvehs are less of a mitzvah and are less important,” he explained. “The difference is that a woman has an obligation but the man doesn’t.”
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leading halachic authority in the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic Haredi Orthodoxy, is fully behind the closure, said Shmulik Woolf, a member of the rabbi’s inner circle.
Kanievsky, who had initially opposed government efforts to close yeshivas and synagogues, announced on Sunday that his followers should eschew communal prayers and worship at home.
However, some ultra-Orthodox men have been filmed (Hebrew) attempting to immerse in keilim mikvehs, small mikvehs used to dip utensils such as tableware and cutlery, and some men’s mikvehs have remained open in defiance of the new regulations.
In response, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called on the Israel Police to begin cracking down on men’s mikvehs because they can “cause many cases of infection and even death.”