As the severity of the coronavirus crisis was beginning to reveal itself, I wrote about the bravery of the mainstream Orthodox rabbinic establishment in responding to the crisis. Since then, my feelings have changed somewhat. I have seen continued rabbinic courage on this issue. However, I have also seen rabbinic failures. Perhaps this is to be expected, since no institution will manage a crisis perfectly.
However, there is one failure I keep coming back to: We have seen numerous rabbinic rulings concerning megillah readings, public prayer, kaddish, and Torah readings. All of these have one thing in common: They take place in the synagogue. In the Orthodox world, the synagogue has traditionally been a male domain. These rituals are considered so vital to a man’s religious experience, that there is no way they can be given up. Whether it is outlining safe ways to have physical minyan while maintaining social distancing, or allowing one to say kaddish via a virtual minyan, it is taken as a given that one cannot be expected to forgo these rituals. In other words, they are treated as a religious right.
However, this right is not generally extended to women in the Orthodox world: Women attend Orthodox synagogues as spectators, not participants. Women’s sections are often smaller and may be located at a place where it is hard to hear the services. Women who attend services during the week have sometimes been reported being kicked out of the women’s section by men who enjoyed praying in the women’s section for the extra legroom, or by men who did not respect their right to say kaddish.
In other words, we take public prayer as a right for men, while taking it as a given that women are expected to live without that experience. Why? Because women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, in order to enable them to carry out the most important mitzvah of all: maintaining a Jewish home.*
One of the most important aspects of maintaining a Jewish home is observing the laws of niddah, by abstaining from sex while one has one’s period, and not resuming sexual relations until one has immersed in a mikvah. This set of laws is euphemistically termed, “taharat hamishpacha” – family purity. This mitzvah regulates a couple’s sexual cycle according to halacha, thereby significantly impacting a core part of their romantic relationship. It is the woman’s mitzvah, because it is her body that is in a state of purity/impurity, her body that menstruates, and her body that immerses in the mikvah.**
Recently, the Eden Center and Nishmat came out with guides to safe mikvah immersion.
The Nishmat guide is divided into four sections: information for mikvah attendants, information for the general public, information for those in quarantine, and general medical information. It also includes a list of questions it has been asked by women, alongside the answers, and a hotline number to call.
The top of the guide reads: “The Torah holds public health paramount… One who vigilantly follows the instructions of the health authorities fulfills the mitzvot of “be most careful for your life” (Devarim 4:15) and “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18)…Stay informed about local guidelines designed to prevent new cases of coronavirus and follow them, even if the instructions sound overly cautious. Official medical guidelines of this sort are halachically binding.”
Thus, mikvah observance is framed within the context of the overarching commandment of maintaining public health. It is clear that fulfilling the health guidelines takes religious precedence over mikvah observance at this time. This also fills the reader with confidence that any halachic or practical advice given will adhere to current health and safety rules.
The Eden Center has released a chart that expands on and clarifies the advice of the Israeli Religious and Health Ministries: Anyone in quarantine or who has potential coronavirus symptoms is forbidden from immersing. Women who are immersing should shower and get ready at home, to minimize contact with surfaces at the mikvah. The chart also explains the sanitization measures that are being undertaken by mikvahs.
These guidelines respond to a real need: Women are afraid of immersing, even as they long to immerse for religious reasons. It is important both to make sure that women who are potentially infectious do not immerse, while allaying the fears of non-contagious women who want to immerse, and helping them to do so in as safe a manner as possible. I do not think it is coincidental that the two institutions that are acting as leading voices on this issue are led by halachic women, rather than by halachic men.
In contrast, the exclusively male Israeli Rabbinate and mainstream Orthodox rabbinic establishment has yet to make pronouncements on mikvah in the age of coronavirus, other than the official religious guidelines not to go while in quarantine.
Many women are understandably petrified of going to mikvah: In order for the immersion to count as valid, you must immerse your entire naked body, so that the water touches you completely. One of the main ways of transmission of coronavirus is by touching surfaces that have the disease -and some people may have coronavirus and be asymptomatic, in which case they might show up to mikvah.*** It is true that mikvahs are now sanitizing the mikvah in between users, and that chlorinated water does not transfer the virus, according to the CDC. Nevertheless, it’s understandable that women might not feel that these assurances are good enough.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, in conjunction with Kolech and the Center for Women’s Justice, released a statement that due to the emergency nature of the situation, there might be room, theoretically, to allow couples to engage in physical intimacy while fully clothed, even if the wife does not go to mikvah. Intercourse would still be prohibited, as would any other sexual activity involving nudity. Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig has written on Facebook validating women’s concerns about mikvah, and urging individual women who are concerned to contact either Nishmat or himself for a personal psak. This implies that there might be some wiggle room within the laws, though gives no indication as to what that wiggle-room might be, or how far it would extend. It also legitimizes women’s feelings, instead of dismissing them.
Both of these rabbis are extremely well-respected. But they are also rabbis who are known for their halachic innovation. When will a more “mainstream” rabbi take a stand? What about the official Rabbinate?
The chief rabbis did finally release a statement: It starts off by saying that the mikvahs have been declared safe according to the Health Ministry (which is true) and that there is “no worry at all, God forbid, to become sick or infected.”
In other words, it starts off by invalidating and delegitimizing women’s fears. It then goes on to dispel the notion that one can immerse in a home bathtub, explaining that unless a woman immerses in a mikvah she is “a complete niddah, and forbidden to her husband.” It ends by saying: “We know the dedication of the women of Israel in keeping the purity of the home, and we hold their hands in this matter. Continue to keep the halacha properly, and don’t listen to lies and false advice.”
The main point of the statement is to impress upon women the importance of their going to mikvah, and the silliness of their fears about doing so. Praising the dedication of Jewish women who go to mikvah is apt to cause guilt among those who are considering not going because of the public health situation, especially when combined with an exhortation to “keep the halacha properly.” The statement fails to forbid women who are in quarantine or not feeling well from going to mikvah. It also says nothing about women who have extra health risks, such as diabetes or heart conditions.
Contrast this to Chief Rabbi David Lau’s statement on keeping synagogues open. He starts off saying not to close the synagogues, and then spends the rest of the letter explaining how to pray while observing the Health Ministry guidelines, calling it “an obligation” to stand 2 meters apart, before ending by saying that the elderly or those at risk are “forbidden” from attending synagogue. Here, two values are paramount: 1) Enabling a religious experience by keeping the synagogues open; 2) Enforcing public safety by giving strict guidelines that turn health rules into religious obligations.
We are told over and over by religious apologists that the heart of the Jewish tradition is the Jewish home, which is why a woman’s role in Orthodox Judaism, as keeper of that home, is so important. But now, the rabbis are showing where their priorities really lie, when they issue countless rulings about how to have minyan safely or how to say kaddish from home, without issuing clear guidelines on mikvah immersion. Women’s concerns about their own health and safety are being invalidated. Halachic flexibility is being used to help men to have a better prayer experience,* but where is the halachic flexibility when it comes to helping women navigate a halachic issue that dictates one of the most basic aspects of their lives: their relationships with their romantic partners?
From a purely halachic perspective, the laws of family purity are Torah laws that carry a severe penalty if they are violated. Praying in a minyan and/or saying kaddish, in contrast, are rabbinic enactments. So it is understandable that when it comes to mikvah, there are fewer loopholes. However, the flexibility that is being applied to laws of public prayer isn’t being used to find loopholes, but rather, to help men to exercise what is seen as their religious right to public prayer. Perhaps the core of the problem is that women are not seen as having a religious right to having more flexible halachic rulings made on their behalf.
It could seem that sexism is a minor issue during this time of emergency. But we are living in a historic moment. The steps we take during this time of crisis will shape the future of the community we become. Therefore, it is precisely at this moment, that we need to pay attention to the power imbalances and assumptions underlying our community structures.
In the meantime, let’s pray that this crisis passes soon, and we find ourselves living in times of health once more, when nothing seems too petty for the internet.
*at least, that is what the apologetics tell us
** Please pardon the cis/heteronormativity of this post. I am working within the framework of halachic paradigms.
*** I am not a doctor or a medical expert. This is my understanding based on what I have read. I strongly urge you to do your own research and make sure you are up to date on your country’s health guidelines.
****even as it is an accepted norm that women are not entitled to that experience