A woman who wanted to immerse in private in two state-owned and run mikvas (ritual baths) in Jerusalem was denied the right to do so by state-employed female mikva attendants last Thursday night. Worse yet, and state-employed staff at the second mikva called police to have the woman removed.
Mikva Attendant Calls Cops On Woman Who Wanted To Immerse Alone Without The Attendant Watching Her
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
A woman who wanted to immerse in private in two state-owned and run mikvas (ritual baths) in Jerusalem was denied the right to do so by state-employed female mikva attendants last Thursday night. Worse yet, and state-employed staff at the second mikva called police to have the woman removed, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Many local religious councils, including Jerusalem’s, are haredi-controlled. Almost all of those religious councils, even some that are not in haredi control, refuse to allow women to immerse without a female attendant checking the immersion and the preparation before it to make sure it it is done properly.
Roni Chazon-Weiss heads Immersion in Quiet, an organization which seeks to help women who wish to immerse without an attendant present. She told the Post she receives at least one complaint per week from women who were refused such solitude by state-employed mikva attendants acting on orders from the religious councils.
Both Immersion in Quiet and ITIM, a Modern Orthodox founded and run nonprofit that helps Jews navigate Israel’s byzantine state religious bureaucracy, say women who seek to immerse in complete solitude have often undergone a mastectomy. Others are extremely zealous in guarding their privacy or find that immersing in complete solitude allows them to have stronger kavana (spiritual concentration) during the immersion, which is meant to remove spiritual "impurity" allegedly caused by a woman's menses.
The attendant's purpose is to make sure a woman's hair is not tangled and that there is no foreign matter on her body that would be considered under halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) as an interference with the "pure" water of the mikva reaching the woman's entire body.
The woman who was blocked from immersing Thursday night was reportedly able to immerse in solitude at a third Jerusalem public mikva Saturday night.
“The commandment to immerse is a private and intimate commandment between the woman immersing and her husband and God, and the trust in fulfilling it is between them. The responsibility for the immersion is on the woman and it appears to me to be unreasonable that for such a private commandment there should be such gross intervention. A woman should be allowed to chose how she immerses, if she wants an attendant, or to immerse with a friend or completely alone,” Chazon-Weiss of Immersion in Quiet, who also serves as the secretary-general of the religious-freedom-based Yerushalmim political faction of the Jerusalem City Council, told the Post. She also noted that if a woman refuses to immerse in the presence of a mikva attendant, it preferable under halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) that she immerse alone rather than not immerse at all.
Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, who heads the Mikva Department of the Jerusalem Religious Council, disagrees. He insisted state-supported mikvas are intended to be be used under the guidance of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – which is haredi controlled. The Chief Rabbinate doesn’t want women to immerse alone, no matter the reason.
“Women may begin the process by themselves and end the process by themselves, but for one short moment they must have a mikva attendant present to ensure that the immersion was done in accordance with Jewish law. This is the practice that has been used for generations, it is the practice approved by the [state-employed] chief rabbis of Jerusalem [one of whom is haredi; the other is Zionist Orthodox]. These are the instructions and we stand by them,” Blumenthal told the Post.
Blumenthal also said the problem was minor because the numbers of women wishing to immerse in solitude are small. According to Blumenthal, approximately 22,000 women immerse in state-funded mikvas in Jerusalem each month and only about 50 to 60 women want to immerse alone.
“These women can go to the sea or a natural spring if they do not want to use the mikvas in accordance with Jewish law,” Blumenthal said. “This” – the attempt by Immersion in Quiet amd ITIM to use the legal system to force change – “is gross antagonism. The mikva attendants are taught to be extremely sensitive and to respect a woman’s dignity and this is how they act.”
State-employed mikva attendants across the country have repeatedly badgered, harassed and interfered with women seeking to use state mikvas. The problem was at one recent point so severe that the Chief Rabbinate was forced to issue new directive to these female mikva attendants after cases of mistreatment were made public and the court system became involved.
Blumenthal insisted the only way women will be allowed to immerse alone is if they come with a letter from qualified Orthodox rabbi accepted by the Chief Rabbinate that gives her permission to do so. The women in question also must have specific instructions from that rabbi instructing them on how to properly immerse alone. If both those conditions are met, Blumenthal said, accommodtions could be made.
A spokesman for Jerusalem’s Zionist Orthodox Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern – who opposes allowing women to immerse alone – said that Stern heard about the woman’s case late Thursday night after it was too late to help her. Stern had previously helped other women who asked him to allow immersion in solitude, the spokesman added – but when on ti imply the woman was at fault for what happened.
“It is a shame that on Thursday the woman in question did not come to Rabbi Stern earlier like other women whose problem was solved without involving the police and without confrontation,” the spokesman told the Post, adding that Stern will propose setting up a committee of women to evaluate and vet the requests of women who want to immerse alone.
An attorney working with the ITIM lashed out at the Jerusalem religious council over the handling of Thursday night’s incident.
“The violation of women’s rights in mikvas is one of the worst violations of human rights by a public institution in Israel. Religious institutions should provide a service to women who want to keep a religious commandment and not threaten them. Women have the right to privacy, dignity, and religious autonomy. The mikvas in Israel are run by the local religious councils which are public institutions and paid for through taxes and public funding, and each woman should be given the right to use the mikvah, just like every man can pray as he wishes in synagogue and like every member of the public can eat in a kosher restaurant without being investigated as to whether they have waited the requisite number of hours required by Jewish law between meat and dairy food,” the ITIM attorney, Elad Caplan, reportedly said.
ITIM petitioned the High Court of Justice in May on behalf of 13 women – including the woman from Thursday night’s incident – to try to compel local religious councils across the country to allow women to immerse alone without an attendant present. The case won’t be heard until March of next year.