ITIM Goes to the Mikveh — Thanks, ITIM!

Ten years ago, I wrote Murderer in the Mikdash, a mystery novel set in the time of a third Beit haMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. One of the points I needed to understand in my novel was how Mashiach might implement the rule of Jewish law when not all residents accepted the authority and value of halachah.

Once possibility was that he would use force, coercing the nonobservant majority to hew to the standards of the minority. Such force — warning transgressors and then punishing them — would, in our current context, likely lead to protest, rioting, and worse. It might be what would happen, but it didn’t feel like true to the traditional vision of Mashiach, which sees that time as wholly good and blessed.

Another option was to insist that Mashiach would not come until all of us, or perhaps virtually all of us, serve God properly. That’s the quietist version of Messianism, where Jews have to wait for that Arrival, dependent on their observance and that of those around them. This was the vision prevalent through most of the past two thousand years. But it was repudiated, at least in part, by Religious Zionists, who came to believe that we can begin the process of rebuilding Israel, and that itself can hasten Mashiach. How would that look in terms of when and how Mashiach might come?

Is there a middle ground, I asked myself, where enough Jews, but not all, are ready for Jewish law to be the law of the land? What if, say, two-thirds of Jews were committed to service of God, as laid out by halachah? Could Mashiach inaugurate an halachic State? How would he handle it?

Very gently, was my answer and belief. There were would be that which could not be tolerated — public Sabbath desecration, eating on Yom Kippur, or eating leaven on Passover, perhaps — but, in recognition of the level of imposition that already constituted, there would be much more that, while not halachically advisable, would not be so flagrant a violation as to force the authorities to crack down on it.

Bringing the Book to Life

I mention that, first, because I try to mention my books as often as I can. In this case, I have a better excuse, in that a friend, Rabbi Dr. Shaul (Seth) Farber, showed me the brief that his organization, ITIM, had filed with the Israeli courts (full disclosure: I support ITIM financially, and think highly of much of the work that they do), and wondered whether it interested me enough to write about it.

ITIM wants the Chief Rabbinate, and the Religious Services Ministry (who have legal responsibility for mikvaot) to articulate clear guidelines for the mikveh experience, so that women can know what they can and should expect from the בלניות, the women who supervise the mikvaot.

Claimants’ stories depict mikveh-ladies who, either on their own authority or because they believe their job requires them to act that way, impose themselves and their rules on the women coming to their mikveh. In particular, many of the women involved wanted the right to immerse alone or in the presence of a friend, rather than the mikveh-lady herself.

Individual Rights vs. Enforcing Religious Standards

Perhaps for reasons of the legal system in Israel, perhaps because it’s their view, ITIM phrases its suit in terms of individual autonomy, the rights of women to immerse in the way they understand the obligation.

Pushed too far, that seems to me problematic. If women in Israel wanted to use their autonomy to immerse while invoking the name of an idol, I for one would not be in favor. That, it seems to me, is part of the compromise of Israel today, that the religious have the ability to set up their needs according to some basic standards.

But with rights comes responsibility, and one responsibility of a society in which many members have sharply differing views is making as many accommodations as one can. As the ITIM brief notes, mikveh in Israel today is completely voluntary. The women come to immerse because they accept the religious obligation and wish to fulfill it. The rub is that they don’t see the steps of the process the same way as do the women running those mikvaot. And they have rabbinic support for their position.

The clash, in other words, is exactly that which I laid out in my novel: given a difference of opinion about the role religion plays in one’s life — whether it’s that the less-religious person is nonreligious, or has adopted a standard of religiosity that seems unacceptably more lenient than the other’s — how do we build together rather than apart?

  1. Lichtenstein Weighed In, Almost Fifty Years Ago

While thinking about this essay, I came across an article R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l wrote fifty years ago, almost (it is the first essay in Leaves of Faith 2). He was addressing interaction between religion and state in Israel. His words ring true for our circumstance, the interaction between different types of religiosity, and how and whether for one to impose on the other:

Before a Jewish state institutes religious ordinances, it must evaluate empirically the overall impact of a given law upon… national and religious life. It must ascertain whether the game is worth the candle. The possibility that the resistance engendered will outweigh any gain in observance or commitment; that individual personality will be impaired by the impingement upon civil liberties…all must be carefully considered, spiritual gain in one sector being balanced against possible loss in another.

Endangering the Dream

Exactly, and we are now seeing the consequences of insufficient care in making such rules. In this and other areas, intransigence by those in control is beginning to bear bitter fruit. There are already many calls– by Orthodox Jews, religious Zionists, those who attach a religious value to the State — for disbanding the Chief Rabbinate, for religion in Israel to be completely a matter of personal choice and preference. This should dismay any religious Jew, since the religion is clear that centralized authority is part of any whole picture of Judaism.

When the Sanhedrin existed, we are told, there was no debate among the Jewish people. Whether that’s because they decided every question, or authoritatively differentiated between situations that required a unified national ruling and those where multiple perspectives could be tolerated, I cannot say.

I feel comfortable saying, though, that we know we have lost sight of our goals if we long for the chaos bemoaned four times at the end of the book of Shofetim, איש הישר בעיניו יעשה, each one doing what seems right in his eyes. We need to grapple with that which the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry give evidence they don’t, how to build a system that leaves maximum flexibility, while yet also aware of those standards on which there is no room for accommodation.

The stakes would be high if the only concern were that women might choose to forego mikveh, but they are much higher. At stake, it seems to me, is our progress on the road to a Jewish State, a State that knows how to navigate the differences among Jews, to produce outcomes acceptable to those on the more stringent side while open and as welcoming as much as possible to those on the less stringent side.

What’s Necessary in a Mikveh?

That’s why the mikveh case is so troubling to me. Leave individual autonomy aside, the intrusive insistence by mikveh-ladies — perhaps only a few, perhaps some acting on their own authority, in contravention of guidelines from the Chief Rabbinate, perhaps some out of fear that they might lose their jobs if they act otherwise — betrays a failure to recognize the range of the acceptable. In a community where everyone goes to mikveh exactly the same way, the insistence on doing it differently could be seen as a breach of community standards, might need to be treated as such.

But in a world where women from all walks of life come each month, it seems clear and obvious that the mikveh lady should see herself as providing desired assistance, while policing only the most basic and universally recognized standards. And the more varied the clientele, the more basic and limited those standards should be. Particularly in a practice whose ramifications are more individual than most, since her immersion affects, halachically, only the immersing woman herself and her husband.

Those who want to foster Jewish observance need to be ready to look at some standards and say, despite how necessary I find this, knowing that others see it as unnecessary, intrusive, and, for some, trauma-inducing, I will refrain from imposing it, painful as that is for me. Because I know that other times, I will feel I cannot but impose a standard they also see as intrusive, and yet I will feel no choice.

Let the more stringent side give as much as possible, so that more women feel comfortable fulfilling this obligation, even if they do it in a way that seems somewhat lacking. So that when those on the stringent side need to stand their ground, we all know that it’s not general churlishness, it’s a sincere feeling of lack of alternatives.

Because that, as far as I can tell, is the only road to Mashiach currently available. If Hashem wants to send Mashiach suddenly, without our having built up to it, I welcome it and await it on any day Hashem chooses. But if Hashem is waiting for us to bring Mashiach, by readying the world for him in advance, we have to take the necessary steps, one by one, leaping over only those steps we all agree to leap, and walking slowly, sometimes painfully slowly, wherever that’s what’s needed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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