A daughter of American immigrants is at the center of a legal battle over a woman's right to immerse herself in a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath.
Plia Oryah, a 19-year-old Modi'in native, is among several parties to a December 29 petition asking Israel's Supreme Court to compel Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, and the Office of the Chief Rabbinate to reverse official directives to municipal and regional ritual bath operators. The directives explicitly deny access to women who are single, divorced or widowed.
"These are public facilities," charges Oryah, who said she considers herself to be Orthodox. "It's their job to operate and maintain the facilities, not to decide who can use them."
The 17-page petition was filed in Jerusalem by attorneys for Oryah; a second woman named Amital Zaks; and two organizations, The Center for Women's Justice, and the Orthodox-feminist group Kolech. It asserts that the restrictions violate women's religious freedom and their right to privacy. They claim the prohibitions are tantamount to "religious coercion."
The petition cites a directive issued by Rabbi Metzger in 2008 declaring that "it is absolutely forbidden for an available woman to immerse herself for purification, and it is obligatory to prevent her and forbidden to assist her." Metzger included in his ruling a request for the broadest possible dissemination of the prohibition, along with his insistence that mikveh operators be "punctilious about mikveh attendants not allowing available [women] to immerse under any circumstances whatsoever."
"It makes me furious, and it makes my life miserable once a month," said Oryah, the daughter of New York City natives. For three years she has resorted to immersions on the banks of the sea, under the cover of darkness. She has even adopted disguises and spun various tales in an effort to elude inquiring "mikveh ladies," she said.
"I have been dressing up as a married woman," said Oryah, referring to the requisite head-covering, long skirt, and long shirt sleeves generally associated with Orthodox married women. "Why should this be? Any Jewish woman, no matter her status, should have the right to use a mikveh."
According to the state's interpretation of halakha, or Jewish law, only married women may immerse themselves in the ritual bath as an act of purification at the completion of their menstrual cycle. The rabbinic prohibitions against single women immersing themselves generally stem from a concern that some women may utilize their "ritually pure status" as a pretext for engaging in forbidden pre-marital relations. The more severe Torah prohibition for relations with a woman in the midst of her menstrual cycle warrants what is known in Hebrew as karet, or "divine punishment."
The petition argues for the right of single women to immerse themselves for a host of reasons - spanning the physical and spiritual realms - and maintains that they are under no obligation to delineate or justify their beliefs to religious authorities.
"The authorities are preventing women from observing the mitzvah of immersion according to their own beliefs - something that constitutes religious coercion and the violation of freedom of religion and conscience," the petition states.
"The resulting religious coercion is an unacceptable discrimination between single and married women," asserts the petition.
Oryah's parents, who are divorced, expressed divergent views on the matter.
"I am proud of my daughter for believing in something and for fighting for what she believes in," said Oryah's mother, Rina. "On the other hand, I believe that as Jews we have to follow the Torah and halakha. If the rabbis have decided something is not allowed, then this is what we must follow."
Oryah's father, Yaacov, said he supports his daughter's position.
"She believes in it, and I encourage her," he said. He said he considers himself to be Orthodox and insists that his point of contention is not with the halakha.
"This is a civil rights issue, he said. "The Rabbinate may wish to discourage single women from immersing themselves, but they do not have the right to forbid them from doing so." Oryah notes that her own approach to the ritual has evolved over time.
"Without any regard to a relationship I would still go to the mikveh every month," she said. "I feel a sense of renewal. It is an amazing, wonderful experience."
In her view, it is "not the rabbis' business" what women do prior to or after their visits to the mikveh.
"What will come next?" she asked. "Will Jews be barred from eating at restaurants that serve meat, out of rabbis' fears that people will soon after eat dairy?"