Who’s Mikveh (Ritual Bath) is it Anyway?

On Thursday of last week Israel’s Supreme Court ruled, and rightly so, that people undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism are entitled to immerse themselves in a public ritual bath (i.e. mikveh) as part of the ceremony, striking down a lower court’s decision to the contrary.

For those not familiar with how the ritual baths are funded, they are government supported institutions which the Supreme Court has found should be made available to any citizen of Israel who wants to use those facilities as part of his or her conversion process. Immersing in a mikveh is an essential step in that process.

The use of these ritual baths has been an issue in Israel for some time. The rabbinate believes that the use of the facilities should be restricted to (a) married women who need to immerse at the end of their menstrual cycle, (b) Orthodox conversions, (c) men who wish to immerse daily, before the onset of Shabbat or the onset of festivals and (d) for toiveling dishes, pots, pans, etc., that will be used in food preparation.

A couple of years ago there was great pressure on the rabbinate to direct the attendants at these facilities not to ask any personal questions of women who wanted to immerse as there are any number of women, Orthodox and others, who have a desire to do so and were being turned away from such facilities as not falling into one of the above categories. So, for example, an observant woman who is not married but is living with a man and wanted to immerse in the mikveh at the end of her menstrual cycle would be turned away by the attendant. The courts at the time found in favor of those who wanted to use the mikveh but were generally turned away and the attendants were ordered to cease and desist with their questions about marital status.

This latest decision has, predictably, riled the rabbinic establishment which is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox leadership. [n.b. I have readers who object to my use of the term ultra-Orthodox as derogatory but it is in common use as well as descriptive so I continue to use it.] Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was quoted as saying “the court’s miserable decision to allow Reform Jews and Conservatives to immerse in mikveh baths intended to serve the entire public is outrageous. Reform Jews are making use of halacha [religious law] for their needs when it is convenient and are undermining the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. The court cannot on the one hand satisfy a small minority, and on the other gravely harm thousands of Jews interested in Jewish life according to halacha and in keeping the true Jewish identity of the state.”

But Rabbi Yosef’s argument is simply full of holes. He clearly says that the ritual baths are “intended to serve the entire public.” If that is the case, and if the state supports those facilities with tax dollars that everyone pays, then using his logic the court is 100% correct in making those facilities available to everyone.

Rabbi Yosef goes on to deride the fact that the court has acted to “satisfy a small minority.” Yet, a 2010 report released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 8% of Israel’s Jewish population defines itself as ultra-Orthodox, 12% as Orthodox, 13% as traditional-religious, 25% as traditional, and 42% as secular, on a descending scale of religiosity. So to which small minority is the esteemed Rabbi referring? The 8% that claim to be ultra-Orthodox or the combined 20% of total Orthodox? Is it fair that the restrictive rules governing the use of the mikveh should be dictated by that 20% to all of the others?

Finally, what real grave harm will come to the thousands of Jews interested in Jewish life according to halacha (again, according to his words above) if say 20 Jews are converted to Judaism by Reform rabbis? The biggest risk, frankly, is to those 20 people themselves whose names the Rabbinate will then add to the lists they keep in Israel of people their followers are not permitted to marry and who, themselves, will not be permitted to marry in Israel at all. And, yes, the Rabbinate does keep such lists and in spite of all of the efforts to make them known under the Freedom of Information acts, they remain secret and have a way of surfacing at the most inconvenient times to be sure.

The real issue here is power and who has control over the life cycle of Jews in Israel. At least at this moment in time the Israeli Supreme Court still has enough good sense to know when to say to the Rabbinate that it has overstepped its bounds. In this particular case the mikveh has been deemed a state institution and if the Rabbinate does not agree let if find its own sources of funds to build its own ritual baths. But those built and operated with state funds belong to all of us.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.