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The Mikveh Bill: When my purity means your impurity

The proposed law cementing ultra-Orthodox control of the mikveh serves only -- and damnably -- to humiliate other Jews

Can you imagine legislation that invokes the holy Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest, and Yom Kippur? That refers to the Holy of Holies and goes as far as mentioning the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? Well, the explanatory notes of a recent Knesset bill do just that, and when a bill’s sponsors employ the entire holy arsenal of Judaism, it must be for a fundamental, existential, and most important matter.

Ludicrously, we are talking about the “Mikveh Bill,” which was advanced earlier this week by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The bill calls for forbidding the use of public ritual baths by anyone who is not prepared to acquiesce to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and immerse in accordance with its strict edicts. The bill seeks to cleanse the ritual bath from Conservative, Reform and even Orthodox individuals — primarily women — who wish to immerse in the mikveh in accordance with any faith and feelings that might differ from those of the ultra-Orthodox.

No less than one-tenth of the members of the Knesset, including half of the Jewish Home party, have signed on in support of this bill. Its explanatory notes criticize, in the harshest terms, all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism — representing most of the affiliated Jewish world–  and call them “assorted cults” and “the bodies that seek to undermine the foundations of Judaism.” There is no doubt: they are taking no prisoners. The purification of the ultra-Orthodox depends on making the rest of the Jewish world impure.

While at first this bill may appear to be a sectoral issue, and may be seen as borderline bizarre for the majority of Israelis, it should not be. Those who classify it as a “matter for the religious” or dismiss it as “laughable” become partners in allowing this shameful bill to become reality.

Religion is an intimate matter; immersing in a ritual bath is an extreme physical expression of that intimacy. Naked before God, one uses the mikveh in a search for the path of purity. When the state tries to interfere with this process, it desecrates its own holiness. There are indeed detailed Jewish laws pertaining to immersion that demonstrate a deep connection between rules and emotions. But why should the state have anything to do with that?

The bill is intended to circumvent a Supreme Court decision to allow Jews of all denominations to use the mikveh for ritual purposes in their own ways. While not necessarily something to celebrate, I do not think that the attempt is inherently wrong either. That said, the proposed bill is patently discriminatory. If the state allocates tax payers’ money to build ritual baths, why would it provide services only to those whose religious outlook and behaviors toe the stringent line of the ultra-Orthodox?

Given the culture war that is raging these days, those who control public assets — posts, resources or voting power — are being enticed to use that control for sectarian purposes, in culture, education, and religion. In some cases, it is understandable: elected officials attempt to implement their policies. But this power must be limited by the responsibility an elected official has to the state and to the public. In the context of the Mikveh Bill, there is no way to justify the ultra-Orthodox sectarianism, as it prevents others from having the freedom to exercise their religion at public facilities. Allowing ritual baths to be monopolized by the Rabbinate would cause grave harm without any commensurate benefit.

In addition to the human, legal and nationalistic aspects of this bill, there is a symbolic one of special import: the soul is harmed by the degrading treatment by some ultra-Orthodox Jews of those who believe differently than they do. And the majority of the Knesset accepts it silently. Even if we want to deliberate about whether the State of Israel should legally recognize the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, when it comes to issues like conversion and personal law, which can cause deep rifts in the nation, there is no practical or even theoretical justification for violating the rights of those who want to use the state’s religious services. The heart breaks at this harmful mockery of Reform and Conservative Jews.

In truth, the accusation found in the Mikveh Bill’s explanatory notes, that Reform and Conservative Jews seek to undermine the foundations of Judaism, teaches us more about the bill’s sponsors than about the denominations it attacks.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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