I haven’t been in the Orthodox community too long. Let’s round it off at about six and a half years. For only five of them have I held the undisputed title of Jew. I spent that extra year and a half learning the nuances of Jewish conversion and preparing inevitably to visit the mikvah to resolve my status. I wasn’t exactly thinking about the women who wanted access to the mikvah (well, not the mikvah part), but certainly it shouldn’t surprise us all that there are Orthodox women that want to go to the mikvah to facilitate sexual relationships.
It’s certainly made my Judaism more real learning the issues of personal status, interpersonal relationships and the sexual issues that shape it. I had to transition from a permissive, even if regulated, cultural attitude toward sex to one of extreme privacy and taboos. I’d foregone sex for sometime before getting involved in the community. The amount of sexual encounters I had as opposed to earlier years was massively reduced and totally nonexistent by the time I was totally integrated into the conversion process. In my prime, from 18 until I got married, I didn’t have access to something which was so primal and instinctive. That my new community struggled with that lack of access made it more real.
It’s logical that the Rabbis of yesteryear enforced a prohibition against single ladies making these sort of visits – a fence against premarital sex. Simultaneously, they’ve dealt with imperfect people that don’t let that stop them – a sin punishable by karet.
So as we confront this issue – single women dunking – it’s extremely worrisome that I’m reading this as a political issue. Seth Farber published his views on the issue in modern Israel as being one of personal freedom and public rights:
But beyond the social dimensions of this case, I believe that what is really at stake is the question of power and particularly, the power of Jewish life. Mikvaot in Israel are built with public money and are overseen – at least in theory – by public institutions. But all too often, what goes on inside the mikve is not subject to any oversight.
I’m sorry, but that’s irresponsible. There is a constant wrestling over this issue in a Halachic and philosophical way – when is it appropriate to let a single woman visit a mikvah? Reducing this to a matter of public funds skirts the responsibility of the Rabbinical position and diminished the often-ignored repercussions in Judaism of pervasive sex. The social dimensions are the case.
I don’t think there is one cookie-cutter policy for every community or every couple. In the same way that women shouldn’t be universally banned from the splash before (or after) marriage, the community would suffer tremendously if it were inversely forced to open to everyone because of taxes.
Who Judges Others?
Personally, before you all think I’m way too conservative on this issue, Rabbis have to know they need to lighten up on this issue. I KNOW women who’ve had sex without visiting a Mikvah. The community cannot pretend that simply prohibiting the practice is enough to prevent premarital sex. But I’d give credit to enough women who’ve done the deed without the dip to say many of them would visit the mikvah if given the opportunity. A lot don’t know the gravity of their sin; they have the chance to do better in the future.
And yet access can’t go universal. As much as it angers that Rabbis can make moral judgments for others, no Orthodox Jew would be so arrogant to think they can’t or shouldn’t. Judaism’s been guided by its leadership for centuries on moral matters – it’s an entire body of law. It’s indisputable Judaism (in the Torah and in consequent Rabbinical law) sees a cause-and-effect relationship that has to be regulated; a relationship between permissive attitudes to sex and seeing the community’s lust get the best of its self-discipline. While we might expect the majority of people to exercise a privilege to the mikvah responsibly, it is a slippery slope where many (women AND men) would abuse it. Jewish leaders have worked for centuries to keep that from happening. Reducing one inhibition has certainly a domino effect for many people. To paraphrase Maimonides, the sexual impulse is the most difficult to control. Freeing the beast inevitably invites a backlash.
The Role of the Rabbi
Stripping the Rabbinate of the ability to put some sort of order on the chaos is what is at stake here. Access needs to be regulated for the religion’s institutions to give people enough autonomy to make responsible decisions. We’re not talking about a chastity belt, even the infamous Rabbinate has its population of people who see when there’s a benefit to letting someone have access; better the rotev than the chelev - it would be better that young men and women not commit the worse sin of ignoring the imperative of mikvah before sexual contact.
What’s at stake here is not simply the rights of a number of single women. Who holds the power at the mikve is emblematic of who controls Jewish life in Israel.
Reducing this issue to one about the Israeli Rabbinate’s authority is a political ploy and in my opinion an incredibly irresponsible move. As a convert I’ve felt the personal anger a lot of people SHOULD feel toward the Rabbinate’s destructive and mutually reprehensible treatment of fellow converts. But this isn’t the issue. Too many other things ride on the community’s ability to ensure it keeps itself on the straight and narrow to use this as a political weapon. The decision as to who gets access shouldn’t be in the hands of judges who have no personal investment in the idea of Orthodox principles and laws. Eventually someone who’s broken one geder will break another. That important “right” to use the mikvah won’t be valued as much as it should. Someone will just ask, “Why should I even use the mikvah?” And that is a social crisis.