Women, the Knesset, and autonomy at the mikveh
A hearing that took place in the Knesset on Monday morning highlighted the fact that in Israel — like some of our neighbors — basic principles of human dignity are being violated on a regular basis in the name of religion. This can’t be allowed to continue.
The hearing, chaired by MK Aliza Lavie and MK Meirav Ben Ari and coordinated by MK Rachel Azaria, addressed the issues of women’s rights in Israel’s public ritual bathhouses or, as they are referred to in Hebrew, mikva’ot or mikvehs. There are approximately 775 mikvehs in Israel and hundreds of thousands of women use them every month. Mikvehs in Israel are overseen by the 132 religious councils and are regulated by law. Almost three years ago, ITIM sued 19 religious councils for overcharging in mikvehs, and in the hearing, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that this behavior had more or less ceased.
However, the main focus of the hearing was on a much more disturbing trend. In 2016, ITIM went to Israel’s Supreme Court on behalf of 13 women who were denied the right to immerse in the mikveh according to their own system of belief. Over a period of more than a year, these women were systematically denied the right to use the public mikvehs because they sought to be unburdened from the mikveh attendant (an employee of the religious council) and her set of beliefs. Because mikveh immersion is performed unclothed, this issue is particularly sensitive to many women. Towards the end of 2016, the Supreme Court reached a decision that enabled women to have autonomy in the mikvehs and immerse according to their own custom.
What then was the purpose of Monday’s hearing? Over the past four months, ITIM’s staff has been monitoring the implementation of the Supreme Court decision. We wanted to know the answer to a simple question: Are women who want to be left alone to observe this ritual being left alone?
In the Knesset, it became clear somewhat quickly that we weren’t the only ones monitoring the situation. And, disturbingly, it seems that everyone who was monitoring the situation has come to the same conclusion: the court decision hasn’t been implemented across the board.
In one situation, a woman was told that if she wanted to immerse without an attendant in the room, the attendant would have to activate a camera to “watch her.” While I couldn’t corroborate this claim independently, the fact that a woman understood that a government employee was telling her this is an outrage.
But there was a documented violation of privacy that demonstrates how far the religious authorities are willing to go to intimidate others. In the Jerusalem religious council, a special form was created — and was brought to the Knesset on Monday — that forces women to “confess” in writing that they are using the mikveh in a way counter to the Rabbinate’s suggested procedures. According to documentation we have gathered at ITIM, these forms are collected and filed. Demanding that women sign a form relating to their personal practice — particularly in a space where women are exceptionally vulnerable — is a basic violation of basic rights and, In my opinion, should be condemned by anyone with any moral backbone.
For many years, talking about mikveh was taboo. Fortunately, we have overcome that era. The time has now come to turn the mikveh into a place that is inviting, particularly to encourage more women to explore this area of Jewish life. By trying to protect their turf, the religious authorities are pushing people away.
Jewish life is meant to be inclusive, and, in Israel in particular, the government has a responsibility to enable as many people as possible to practice Jewish life in a safe and respectful environment. Two mikveh battles — the battle for overcharging and the battle for privacy — are close to finished. But the battle for respectful Jewish life continues. And hopefully the Knesset can help with that.
Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber is the director of ITIM.