Rabbinate to allow mikveh immersion without attendant

June 22, 2016  

A long dispute about the right of women to immerse in a mikveh alone, without the presence of an official attendant, appears to have been resolved, or at least nearly so.

Here’s the sequence of events:

It has been the official policy of the Rabbinate that all women must be accompanied by an attendant (always female) when immersing in the mikveh. The purpose of the attendant is to supervise the immersion so as make sure that it’s done properly according to halakhic standards. The necessity for an attendant is a matter of some dispute in the classical halakhic sources, with some authorities claiming that the presence of an attendant is not required in order to make the immersion valid. As such, it has been claimed that the Rabbinate’s policy should be changed as the presence of attendants is an invasion of the woman’s privacy, and discourages many less religious women from visiting the mikveh.     

In July of 2015, Itim, an organization dedicated to making religious services more accessible to ordinary Israelis, filed a petition with the Supreme Court in the name of 13 women. The petitioners demanded that the court order the Religious Services Ministry to instruct local religious councils to uphold the “policy for protecting the privacy rights of female mikveh-goers” as outlined in the demands published by Itim in April 2014, and to allow for women to immerse in the mikveh without an attendant, if they so desire.

An official document responding to the petition in the name of the Attorney General’s office, the Chief Rabbinate’s office, and the Religious Services Ministry, has now been sent to the Supreme Court. In the document it is stated that, during deliberations involving all of the relevant parties, it was understood that it is quite difficult to legally justify not allowing women to immerse in the mikveh without an attendant present. Therefore it was decided that “the woman herself will be allowed to decide whether to comply with this halakhic requirement (the presence of an attendant) or not, and the Religious Councils and their employees will not make immersion in the mikveh dependent upon the presence of an attendant.” This means that the Rabbinate is essentially agreeing to the demands made in the petition, and thus asking the Supreme Court to dismiss it as superfluous.

Itim Chairman Rabbi Dr. Shaul Farber praised the Rabbinate’s decision. “There are no losers here, both the women and Judaism are winners in this case. I want to thank the Rabbinate for showing sensitivity to the feelings of many women and thus bringing them closer to this important mitzvah. In this case the Rabbinate has followed our long tradition of giving greater power to leniency over stringency. This tradition has kept Jewish society united over the years and we believe it is the key for bringing about a renewed connection between Israeli society and Judaism.”

There may be another twist in the tale still to come, however, as the Supreme Court does have another meeting scheduled tomorrow (Thursday) to discuss the petition, in light of the position taken by the Jerusalem Religious Council. The Council is opposed to any change in policy on the grounds that “The mikvehs are not bathhouses. Their entire purpose is to facilitate valid ritual immersion in accordance with halakhah. This can only be done with an attendant present.” 

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