The ITIM religious services organization is advocating for a change to Israel’s laws that would allow a woman to immerse herself alone, without an attendant at the public mikvah – the ritual pool of purifying waters – in communities across the country.
At present, the laws require an attendant to be present during a Jewish woman’s immersion in the pool in which she ends her time of ritual “impurity” and is able to resume physical contact with her husband. The attendant is there to bear witness that the woman has completely immersed herself as required under Jewish law — pronouncing “Kasher!” upon her emergence from the water — but also, frankly, as a safeguard as well.
The mikvah night experience is not a simple one for some women. The period of impurity, also called “niddah,” can last up to two weeks and is marked by the requirement that a husband and wife maintain separation in all material matters – meaning they cannot touch each other at all. It’s a difficult time for any couple although it does force people to learn to use new channels of communication, albeit sometimes with the aid of a couples coach. It often causes great emotional upheaval in both husband and wife as well. Mikvah night is often an event laced with anticipation, yes, but also trepidation as well, depending on the emotional and psychological background of the woman and also on what has been happening in the marriage.
The problem with which ITIM is currently wrestling has to do with the attendants employed by the local religious councils.
ITIM has reportedly received numerous complaints about attendants who take their responsibilities to an extreme degree, becoming overly zealous in their questioning or examinations prior to immersion.
For many women this can be intolerable; but for some it transforms what should be an act of joy into a nightmare of trauma upon trauma instead.
The organization has submitted a request to the Religious Services Ministry asking that women be allowed some flexibility to immerse without an attendant present in the room. To date, the ministry has yet to respond, according to ITIM.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu completes the process of forming a new government coalition, ITIM will also take up the task anew, of approaching the Religious Services Ministry on ways to soften the rules on mikvah.
According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, current ministry regulations state that mikvah attendants are forbidden from insisting on performing any checks or asking questions that women find intrusive or uncomfortable. The regulations also require attendants to respect the privacy of those who immerse, the ministry said, but it was not clear whether the presence of an attendant is still required.
For the record, it is the opinion of this writer that an attendant with any real sensitivity should be able to maintain a respectful presence – even at some distance – without being intrusive. If she can’t, she is in the wrong place and belongs elsewhere.
The presence of another woman in the room makes sense when dealing with fairly deep water and an emotional experience in which a woman must fully immerse herself in any case: there is a real safety issue here, no matter which way one looks at this issue, anxiety notwithstanding.
For women who are so traumatized by the experience that they cannot face the presence of another individual even to maintain safety while immersing, one might consider the option of professional help to deal with that extreme anxiety which is provoked by this kind of circumstance. Safety should always come first – pikuach nefesh — above and beyond all other considerations.
May we all merit an expansion and elevation of spirit with immersion in the pool of purifying waters.
Hana Levi Julian