The Chief Rabbinate agreed last week to adopt a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy relating to the use of mikveh ritual baths. The decision came in response to a petition brought by the Center for Women’s Justice and Kolech Religious Women’s Forum on behalf of two women who had been blocked from using the mikveh because they were single. The women had argued that as they are tax-paying citizens and the mikveh is a public institution, denying them access violates their civil rights and insisting that they reveal their marital status violates their right to privacy. From now on it is forbidden for a balanit – a mikveh attendant – to ask a woman if she is married or slevingle when she comes to use the mikveh.
The announcement highlights the difficulties faced by those whose approach to mikveh observance doesn’t meet the narrow standards set by the Rabbinate. These Jews, who seek to observe a central Jewish tenet by engaging in the profound spiritual experience of immersion, can find themselves caught in a deeply troubling situation.
Several years ago in Jerusalem, I received a call from a concerned mother, a woman who identified as Orthodox. She explained that her high-school-aged daughter had been dating her boyfriend seriously for a while and that they had decided to start having sexual intercourse. Unable to dissuade her daughter from engaging in premarital sex, the woman sought out my expert advice. Although their question related to a matter of paramount relevance to the daughter’s well-being, it was not her physical health that was at stake and in any case I am neither a family physician nor an OB/GYN. I am a rabbi whose specialty is mikveh, marriage, and anything related to women’s issues in Judaism.
The daughter had asked her mother whether she should start using the mikveh after her menstrual period before having sex, as it says in Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18.
This woman did not know how to answer her daughter, and somehow she had heard about me. So, sitting in a Jerusalem café, we went over the halakhic sources and spoke mother-to-mother, rabbi to client, heart-to-heart. In the end, we agreed that it made sense for this mother to encourage her daughter to use the mikveh. It made parenting sense, and it made sense from the perspective of halakha, Jewish law. After all, Torah Law forbids a couple to have intercourse when the woman is ritually impure from a blood flow from her uterus: a state that can be reversed only by immersing in a mikveh (natural or man-made). The Rabbis added an injunction against single women using the mikveh, so as not to encourage them to have intercourse. Yet what if the woman has already decided to have intercourse, or is even already doing so on a regular basis? That scenario is not addressed by the Rabbis, and it seems logical (and psychologically sound) that in such a case, the woman be encouraged to immerse. That is what this woman told her daughter, and her daughter decided to go ahead and use the mikveh.
Only, where to immerse? The Rabbinate, which controls the mikvaot in Israel, directs the balaniyot not to allow single women to immerse – even if they want to immerse for reasons other than to ritually purify themselves for sexual intercourse, such as immersion before the High Holidays or Shabbat, or immersion to mark a life transition, recovery from illness, or coming out of mourning – all customary reasons for mikveh immersion. They also direct them not to allow brides who are marrying outside of the Rabbinate to immerse, nor people converting to Judaism outside of the Rabbinate (despite the fact that the Interior Ministry accepts these conversions!), nor women who do not fit a whole list of halakhic requirements forced upon them by the Rabbinate. For example, women are turned away from the mikveh if they have stitches, are wearing nail polish, or admit to not having counted seven “clean” (bloodless) days since the end of their menstrual flow. Luckily, this young woman lived near a natural spring, so her problem was solved. At least for then.
I kept in touch with the mother for a few years, and then we lost touch. I left Jerusalem to move to Kibbutz Hannaton in Lower Galilee, where I am now the rabbi of the only pluralist mikveh in Israel. “Shmaya: An Educational and Ritual Mikveh” has the stated mission of allowing any person who wants to use the mikveh to immerse (Orthodox or other-than-Orthodox, Jew or other-than-Jew, single or married, child or adult, man, woman, or transgender, etc, etc.) We also respect the way in which the person wishes to immerse: in private or with a spiritual escort; at night or during daylight hours (women’s mikvaot run by the Rabbinate are only open at night for “modesty” reasons); a week after their period, two weeks after their period, or while they are still menstruating; for ritual purity purposes or for any other spiritual (or non-spiritual) purpose. We are available to anyone and everyone, and let the clients decide on the conditions of their immersions but are totally accessible when help is requested.
A mikveh is a ritual tool that should be accessible to all. The mikveh always remains pure no matter who immerses in it, how he or she immerses, or when he or she immerses. That is one of the unique aspects of mikveh, one of its purposes. It changes the status of the person who immerses in its Living Waters but is not itself changed in the process. This characteristic of mikveh allows for it to be, in my opinion, the ultimate tool for pluralism and openness in the Jewish community. All is allowed, and everyone is allowed, and we can all share the same mikveh. What a beautiful thing! Yet the Rabbinate attempts to control this arena as well.
At “Shmaya” we strive to put mikveh back into the hands of the people instead of in the hands of the Rabbis who wish to control it. The result is a warm and welcoming space for magic to happen. This month alone, “Shmaya” welcomed two couples (one gay and one straight) who came to convert their sets of twins (both the result of surrogacy and both the answer to years of prayers for these couples); a bride who was marrying through the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) movement; a bride who had immersed at “Shmaya” for her conversion and was now immersing before her wedding; a mixed gender group of Orthodox pre-army mechina students who came to hear about Shmaya and immerse before Shabbat; a group of participants in a silent meditation retreat immersing before Shabbat; three groups of bar and bat mitzvah-aged children from Israeli secular schools who came to the Hannaton Educational Center to learn about Judaism and visited the mikveh as part of their two-day program; and a bunch of other regular monthly immersers (men and women, couples and singles).
About a year after Shmaya was opened, I received a call from a woman who heard I ran a mikveh where single women are allowed to immerse. She told me that though she’s single, she had been immersing monthly for a number of years, first in a natural spring and, once she moved to the city, in institutional mikvaot but pretending she was married. I told her she was welcome to immerse at “Shmaya” whenever she wanted and she was so excited that she started coming to Hannaton all the way from the center of the country to immerse. It was not until a few months later that we recognized each other. She, I realized, was the young woman whose mother had come to me so long ago. (She was still with the same boyfriend, who was now in the army.)
And then last week, this same woman called me on the phone to inform me that she is indeed one of the woman whose case led to last week’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement. It was a step in the right direction, we agreed. However, the Rabbinate still maintains its directive to balaniyot not to permit single women to immerse as well as others who do not fit the Rabbinate’s requirements. So the balaniyot are forbidden to permit my young unmarried friend to immerse, but they are not allowed to ask her if she is married or not.
We are still far from the goal of State-funded mikvaot being open to all. The Rabbinate formally agreed with the ruling that it is a violation of a woman’s right to privacy to insist that she answer personal questions about her marital status or personal religious practice. But it still maintains all of the same rules about who is allowed and not allowed to immerse. Many gray areas remain. What if the woman offers the information without being asked? Or what if someone else offers this information? Or what if a balanit asks anyway and the woman in question is not aware of her rights?
Moreover, this “don’t ask don’t tell” policy also does not solve the problem of other situations where the Rabbinate is denying access to the mikveh, such as non-Orthodox conversions, which are not the case of an individual walking alone into a mikveh, but are organized in advance with witnesses and a presiding rabbi. In other words, as was the case when it was applied to gays in the US military, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy may solve the practical problem in some cases, but many additional practical problems remain painfully open. Moreover, it does not resolve the ideological problem, leaving discriminatory policy on the books.
As we got off the phone, this young woman told me that next month she will literally test the waters and see what happens if she tries to immerse in her local mikveh. I wished her luck but reminded her that Shmaya’s doors are always open to her. And to everyone else.