She came to my office to discuss how to encourage unobservant brides to come to the mikva after the wedding. The director of mikvaot in one of Israel’s most secular cities, every week she meets with a group of women ahead of the wedding to discuss marriage, intimacy, and the mikva. Although the brides are required to participate in these sessions as part of the Rabbanut regulations, the meetings create a positive dynamic and many women are willing to stay in touch in the future.
As we discussed motivations, conversation scripts, and keep-in-touch strategies, I asked her about the objections and obstacles that some women find on their way to the mikva. In response, she shared that the rabbis she had consulted advised her to present each woman with the bare minimum of halachic requirements palatable to her.
This is the crux of the current Mikva Law debate. Like every other aspect of Jewish law, there is a variety of rulings, from stringent to lenient, when it comes to the mikva. Beyond a certain minimal threshold, each practice has support in the wide body of halachic rulings. The director understood that once the threshold has been met, each woman could use the mikva based on her own comfort level.
Religious observance doesn’t come in one size. It’s a personal connection to God. As an Orthodox Jew, who believes in the Divine origin of the Torah, there are clear boundaries to this connection – those that appear in halachic rulings throughout the ages. But within those boundaries there is a lot of leeway. As Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef often wrote, “the lenient have what to rely on, and the stringent should be blessed.”
For some reason, this line of thinking is obvious at the supermarket. Both city rabbinates and private badatz organizations each have their own standards. When choosing a can of peas or a pack of schnitzels, we have the autonomy to decide whether the certifying body satisfies our standards. All kosher-certified food in this country meets a certain threshold and after that each person can choose which stringencies to adopt.
The same should be the case in the mikva. It is not the job of the Rabbanut (or the mikva attendant) to press a certain halachic opinion on the users. It is their job to create the most pleasant and sensitive environment for women, within the most lenient halachic boundaries. For a multitude of reasons, from sexual abuse to infertility to marital strife, the mikva is a hard mitzva for many women. The mikva can and should be a private, supportive sanctuary, making the experience as positive as possible.
And this shouldn’t stop at the mikva. While I reject the calls to dismantle the Rabbanut, the time has come for it to rethink its role. Instead of making Torah into a burden, the Rabbanut should find ways to endear the Torah to Israelis.
The Maggid of Dubna illustrated this with a parable. A merchant came to an inn and asked the porter to take his bags to the room. A few minutes later the porter showed up huffing and puffing. Without taking one look at the bags, the merchant told the porter that the bags weren’t his. “How do you know? You haven’t even looked,” asked the porter. “By the way you are breathing, I know you just carried a heavy load. My bags aren’t heavy. All I have in them are some precious stones,” was the answer.
The Torah itself tells us that all its ways are pleasant and all of it commandments are peace. Spiritual connection is a continuous journey, in which we grow gradually, coming closer to God in an authentic reflection of where we are. The Torah doesn’t ask us to overburden ourselves with stringencies that do not reflect our reality. Instead, it asks that we treasure it and rejoice in it as in precious jewels.
I earn for the day when more and more women view the mikva experience in this light. It can and will happen if more mikva directors adopt the attitude of my client and find ways to make the mitzva more accessible to women from all walks of life. Yet it will not happen if politicians and Rabbanut authorities regulate how women use the mikva.
Simply, that is not their choice to make.