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The Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality debating the mikvah issue. / Facebook

Both Haredi coalition partners, United Torah Judaism and Shas, have been promoting a bill to award the Chief Rabbinate complete authority over the ritual baths in Israel. At the moment, control over the mikvahs is in the hands of local religious councils, which presumably run them according to the preferences of their communities, within the framework of Jewish halakha.

Now MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ), supported also by four members of Bayit Yehudi are advancing a bill that on its face is attempting to bypass a ruling of the Supreme Court which permitted the use of state mikvahs for Conversions made by Conservative and Reform clergy — but the downside of the bill, according to at least two organizations of Modern Orthodox women, is to disenfranchise them as well.


The introduction to the UTJ bill explains that “following appeals by institutions whose purpose is to destroy the foundation of the Judaism which has been commonly accepted for thousands of years, the supreme court has ruled that various sects should be permitted to use the ritual baths for various rites that they conduct.” The proposed bill determines that use of public mikvahs would be permitted “strictly for halakhic dipping,” meaning “to maintain the Jewish halakha and customs according to the rulings of the Shulkhan Arukh (the most commonly accepted assortment of Jewish laws since the expulsion from Spain) and the instructions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Council.”

But what appears on its face to be an act driven by the urgent need to block Reform expansion in Israel (which at the moment is ridiculously small, but, who knows, could grow with time and government budgets) — may really be a land grab on the part of the Haredim. Some women have charged this week that by wresting control of the hundreds of local community mikvahs from local communities, the Haredi establishment will also quash the intimate, personal relationship many Israeli women, Modern Orthodox and traditional, have with their ritual baths.

So much so, that there have known to be clashes in some local mikvahs between the mikvah lady and the women who come to use the facility. Some mikvahs don’t allow unmarried women to dip, presumably because this encourages out of wedlock relations between religious men and women, but is not fundamentally a legitimate concern of the public employee whose job it is to hand out soap and towels. Then there are battles over whether a woman may invite her female friend to assist her, which is permitted by the Shulkhan Arukh, but prohibited by Rabbi Moses Isserles, the RaMa, whose running commentary provides the Ashkenazi version of Halakha.

In fact, the new Haredi bill may be motivated as much by the need to repress the “naturalist” trend among “Open Orthodox” women using the ritual baths as it is to fight back the Reform encroachment. The Haredi MKs are fearful of yet another appeal to the Supreme Court, this one by observant women by their own account, who wish to rid themselves of the tyranny of the mikvah lady.

A source close to UTJ who asked not to be named, told that the problems at the Mikvahs are not experienced by Modern Orthodox, or even secular Israeli women, but by a small, radical group of women who are giving Modern Orthodoxy a bad name, essentially looking to transform the commandment of purification into a foreign rite of self fulfillment. “They can’t use a halakhically prescribed facility in a non-halakhic way, even if it is state funded,” the source argued. “Just like they can’t conduct mixed prayers in a state-funded halakhic synagogue.”

The same source also suggested that giving the chief rabbinate centralized control over the mikvahs would result in improvements in the sometimes strained relations between mikvah ladies and their clientele. “There will be one set of rules for all the mikvahs, and everyone would have to abide by it,” he suggested, “whereas today, in a locally run mikvah, women often don’t have anyone to complain to.”

Efrat Gerber-Aran, representing the Modern Orthodox organization Ne’emney Torah V’Avoda (Devoted to Torah and Work), argued on Israeli media outlets that the notion that the state, which is not run by halakha, would dictate to individuals—beyond basic modes of decorum—how they should use a public facility built with their tax money. There is no foundation in state law to prefer Ashkenazi over Sephardi halakha, and yet the mikvahs countrywide are run with this Ashkenazi preference—illegally.

The secretary-general of another organization, Tnu Litbol B’Sheket (Let us dip in peace), Rani Hazon Weiss, said that the proposed bill is “unfortunate and harms the female dippers from every denomination.”

The Likud coalition agreement with the Haredim awarded them veto rights over all religious legislation, but at this point there’s no way most of the other coalition partners would approve it. MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) called the Gafni bill “hurtful and unnecessary,” adding that the bill would also “prohibit women’s dipping as a mystical secret for an easy birth, for fertility, or any other dipping by women for their personal reasons, without the need for help from the mikvah lady. They’re trying to deprive us of our autonomy over the experience of dipping and our manner of dipping.”

Finally, here’s an irony on top of another irony: the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality on February 29 debated the Gafni bill and the issue of autonomy over the mikvahs. The discussion was led by committee chairwoman MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Joint Arab List), an Arab and a card carrying member of the Communist party. She had no doubt the proposed bill had nothing to do with religion. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “this is not a religious issue, but a struggle over interpretation and about the patriarchy embedded in the religion. And I have devoted my entire life to foghting against the patriarchy.”


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