Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; - the New Mikveh Policy

Women may shed their clothing as they prepare to immerse themselves in a mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, but they still have a right to utter privacy when it comes to their marital status, according to a compromise reached Thursday.

The Chief Rabbinate has agreed to forbid questioning of women as to their marital status by bath attendants working in the state-funded and operated mikvot, following a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court joined by two women’s organizations, the Center for Women's Justice and Kolech, which both charged that the practice represented unacceptable discrimination.

The organizations joined in the petition together with two single women who had been blocked from using the mikveh because they were single, as a result of official directives to the ritual bath attendants issued by the rabbinate. Although unmarried women may have a variety of reasons for wanting to immerse, the rabbinate views permitting them to do so as a legitimization of premarital sex.

Last year, one of the petitioners, Plia Oryah, the 19-year-old daughter of American immigrants told Ha’aretz last year that the policy made her “furious” and “miserable” and forced her to disguise herself as married by wearing a head covering or resorting to immersing herself late at night in the sea as an alternative.

No longer. The Rabbinate stated in a court affidavit responding to the petition that "no woman who comes to use the ritual bath should be asked any questions regarding her personal status and that the use of the ritual bath must not be made conditional on that status."

This declaration and the compromise it represents allows the Rabbinate to hold firm to its official position that single, divorced, or widowed women should not use the mikveh, while taking the matter out of the hands of the court and avoiding a legal ruling that the policy is discriminatory - at least for now.

The two groups applauded the development as “a victory for women's right to privacy and freedom of conscience” though they say they will keep a close eye on the ritual bath around the country to make sure the new policy is enforced and that bath attendants refrain from questioning those who come to immerse. In addition to the issue of marital status, CWJ and Kolech have also charged that Reform and Conservative women who wanted to use the ritual baths on the eve of their wedding have also been denied access.

Susan Weiss, the founding director of CWJ and attorney for the petitioners said in a statement: "We applaud the new directive of the Chief Rabbinate and pray that we will not have to return to the Court. Any woman who is denied access to the mikveh should let us know."

A spa mikveh in Givat Shmuel. Credit: Limor Edrey

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