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The religious feminist revolution

Women with halachic and humanist values are leading the charge against the Rabbinate's bid to control mikveh

The “Mikveh Law” — which would enforce the Chief Rabbinate’s requirements for the use of ritual baths — passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on March 17th, after agreement that it would go through numerous changes and improvements before being presented for its first reading, on its way to becoming law. It remains doubly surprising that the civic protest against this law has remained in the headlines for so long, and that the Attorney General took the unusual step of striking down the law.

First, laws regarding issues of church and state, as opposed to more politically charged conflicts, rarely break through to the conscious awareness of general Israeli society. Israeli society favors arguments about security, the ongoing conflict between the right and left wings, and protests about social welfare issues and the cost of living. Issues of church and state rarely produce widespread shock waves.

Second, the protest against this law is led by religious women. This fact is far from trivial. Religious women, in particular, Ashkenazi women, do not discuss going to the mikveh (bath for ritual immersion). We are raised to keep this practice private. Our mothers didn’t tell us when they went to the mikveh and we do our best to hide it from our children. We don’t talk about it with our friends. We don’t talk about it at all. Why? Because. Because it is an intimate matter, because to talk about it is immodest, because that is how we were raised. And now, suddenly, the taboo has been shattered in a clattering boom.

Mikveh attendant oversees ritual immersion (Photo: http://judaism.walla.co.il/)
Mikveh attendant oversees ritual immersion (Photo: http://judaism.walla.co.il/)

The mikveh, its conditions, the invasive questions that women are asked, the role of the attendant and whether there ought to be an attendant at all, these are the topics being discussed on radio programs, Facebook and internal political party forums.

For the first time in Israel, women are publicly discussing their own personal experiences.

It is especially interesting that this fight is not between religious and secular, but between religious and religious. Life used to be simpler. In-fights about how to keep Shabbat in the public sphere, whether chametz should be sold on Pesach, or whether to preserve the Rabbinate’s monopoly on issues of marriage and divorce — on one side stood advocates of universal human rights and on the other side supporters of Halacha. One side preferred a public sphere with minimal signs of religion, while the other saw those signs as part of our unique culture and an integral part of Israel being a Jewish state. One saw the Supreme Court as its arena, while the other viewed the Knesset as its purview, where they applied significant political pressure in order to further their goals. Things were relatively simple and clear. We each knew which side we were on. This is no longer the case.

In the last few years, much of the argument has been intrareligious. The argument has been played out on two axes: Zionism and Statehood verses sectarianism, and the question of the place of humanist values within the halachic decision-making process. There is a relationship between these two axes, but they are not the same. They don’t even overlap.

The Zionism and Statehood axis is related to the question of how Halacha ought to respond to the challenges of statehood and to a diverse Israeli society. What happens when Halacha is no longer a system that is ascribed to on a voluntary basis but, rather becomes something that is imposed by the government? Here, the extent to which those in power are sympathetic to and concerned with the needs of the general society is critical.

knesset session on religious feminism
Special Knesset session marks the contribution of Religious Feminism 22/3/2016 (Photo: Sarah Weil)

The question of the relationship of Halacha to Humanism reflects the complexity inherent in how we view the values of equality, freedom, personal choice, human dignity, the personhood of women, as well as the other values revered by Western culture. Halacha must either maintain a serious ongoing respectful, even accepting, dialogue with these values or alternatively, it must reject and actively fight them.

Should we view the world from a Hegelian or Kookian perspective? Are humanist values merely an expression of man’s ego-driven arrogance, or are they an expression of the world’s progress toward spiritual redemption? Of course, there are fights being fought for political or financial gain, but there is also an authentic fight being fought “for the sake of heaven.” For many years, the sector within the religious camp that supports both Zionism and Humanism has been on the defensive. In the past few years, we have begun to go on the offensive.

Laws like the Mikveh Law will ultimately fail because religious Jews will fight against them.

Let there be no doubt — good will prevail!

About the Author
Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is the director of Kolot's center for jewish leadership and a fellow in Shaharit, a think tank promoting new social covenant in israel. She was a fellow in the Mandel Leadership Institute, former Chair of Ne'emanei Torah ve'Avodah, a modern Orthodox movement promoting pluralism and democracy, and board member of the Yerushalmit Movement, a non-profit for a pluralistic Jerusalem. She was Director of the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, a grant officer at the Rothschild Foundation, and an adviser to Natan Sharansky.
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