Please MK Gafni: Don’t shut women out of their sacred space
Ever since I began researching women’s mikveh experiences, some twenty years ago, I have had a dream. A dream of an ideal mikveh.
A mikveh to which women were eager to go. A spiritual space in which each woman could reconnect with God on a periodic basis through her intimate, personally constructed religious experience. A place where a woman would go not only to fulfill her halakhic obligation but to embrace her transition from niddah, in which marital intimacy is prohibited, to readiness to reconnect with her husband. A sacred space in which Jewish women could hold their important moments – for the good and the bad – miscarriages, the desire to bear children, passage through menopause, or emergence from illness. A place where women could share their most intimate feelings and needs in an environment that would accept them, hold their pain, allow them to feel connected to their bodies and emotions, and rejuvenate their spirit. A place which would be welcoming to Jewish women regardless of their personal religious practices and beliefs; where they didn’t feel threatened, judged, questioned, or rejected by the religious establishment but rather embraced and enveloped by the waters of an ancient and particularly feminine rite. A place where women were empowered to actively connect to their tradition, binding themselves to generations of Jewish women before and after them.
For the past six years I have actively been working with many wonderful people and organizations to bring my dream to reality. The Eden Center, which I founded in 2010, serves as an educational and advocacy center with the goal of enhancing and enriching the mikveh experience. More than 160 Israeli mikveh attendants have so far participated in our training program, preparing them to be more sensitive, knowledgeable, welcoming and helpful to the more than 50,000 women with whom they interact annually. Those attendants who do our course learn about crisis and health prevention, as well as how to refer women to professionals, so that the mikveh can be a community resource that connects women positively to the support services they can use in building healthy relationships and families. And a significant part of our success is due to our partnerships, including the local rabbinic leadership and religious councils, with whom we have built relationships of trust and mutual respect, as they increasingly appreciate our work and recognize that women deserve more at the mikveh.
There are many others in Israel who share our goals for the mikveh albeit seeking to accomplish the mission through different avenues. Organizations such as Advot and Let Us Immerse Alone (תנו לטבול בשקט) have done much on the lobbying side and political work. The Center for Women’s Justice and ITIM have turned to the legal system to forward these goals. Indeed, ITIM, founded by Rabbi Seth Farber, led a legal battle sparked by the many complaints they heard about the invasive treatment received by women at their local mikvaot, which led to a Supreme Court decision mandating protection of women’s privacy and prohibiting mikveh attendants from interrogating their clients’ regarding their religious performance or beliefs. The Supreme Court’s ruling declared that mikvaot in Israel, as public institutions supported by government funding under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, were mandated to be open to all who wished to use them, so that women could no longer could be questioned about the timing of their menstrual cycles, their stitches, mastectomies, birth control methods, or marital status, nor be rejected based on which rabbinical authorities they chose to follow. This important legal precedent signified a change that would be an important step in the evolution of the mikveh experience for Israeli women.
This important milestone, however, is about to be undone by political maneuvering. MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party (Haredi), has proposed new legislation to transfer mikvaot from the authority of the local religious councils to the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate, legislation which yesterday successfully passed its first reading in the Knesset. This seemingly minor bureaucratic move is designed to bypass the Supreme Court’s ruling, handing over administration of the mikvaot to a body which has limited public oversight. Lest we think that this is the proposed legislation of a minor political party, the legislation is being supported by the Cabinet and a number of the coalition parties because of a variety of political considerations. Regardless of those political considerations, the big losers are going to be Jewish women. The protections so carefully nurtured and the moves to enhance the Jewish experience of women in the one religious space which is truly theirs will be undone by a calculated legislative grab.
One of the distinguishing features of the Jewish people is that it is a mosaic. Rabbinic rulings vary from community to community and personal exigencies play a significant role in the halakhic process. The needs of a particular woman at any particular time – infertility, medical or psychological issues, and more – are an important component of the rabbinic rulings which apply to her mikveh immersion. Moving mikvaot to the jurisdiction of a single, centralized, bureaucratic rabbinic authority not only undermines the very nature of the halakhic process but threatens the mikveh as a safe and sacred space for women. In the course of my extensive research I have found that numerous women have stopped immersing altogether because of a bad experience or the invasive treatment they received. Moreover, negative experiences at the mikveh often exacerbated the hatred and animosity to religion and religious institutions of non-religious women forced to use the mikveh before marriage (as part of the State’s requirements). Moving the mikvaot to the sole authority of the Rabbinate will only mean that more women will have the kinds of experiences which will distance them from their sacred space.
MK Gafni’s bill is a bad move for Jewish women. And yet, despite my concerns regarding the political machinations over who ultimately “owns” the mikveh, I retain hope that our grassroots efforts will continue to ensure that the mikveh remains a female sanctuary – not just in the meaning of a safe haven but as a sacred space. Our efforts to educate women about what mikveh can be and the mikveh attendants about how they can help to facilitate that will continue unabated. I believe that my dream about the mikveh is attainable, and no legislative tricks or political games will be able to suppress the wellspring of support and positivity that the Eden Center and its many partners enjoy.