Knesset Bill Would Keep Mikvehs Off Limits to non-Orthodox Converts

The bill is designed to bypass a landmark High Court ruling requiring public ritual baths be open to those undergoing non-Orthodox conversion.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew gestures during a protest against the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat in Jerusalem July 4, 2009.
Reuters

Knesset Finance Committee head Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) has announced that he will advance a bill this week designed to overturn Thursday’s ruling by the High Court of Justice that requires religious councils to allow people undergoing Reform or Conservative conversion to use public mikvehs, Jewish ritual baths, as part of their conversion process.

Ziv Koren

The proposed legislation will require that mikvehs be run only in accordance with the directives of the Chief Rabbinate, which is ultra-Orthodox. The High Court ruling is a violation of the status quo on religion and state, Gafni said, and the coalition agreement that brought his United Torah Judaism party into the current government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requires the maintenance of the status quo, the UTJ Knesset member asserted.

Yated Ne’eman, the newspaper of the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism, took the court to task over the weekend for its ruling, calling it a “serious breach.” The paper cited Gafni as saying that “the High Court of Justice has declared war on the Torah of Israel,” adding that the court “would not rest until it destroyed Judaism here in the country, heaven forbid.”

On the other hand, the so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox opposition faction, attacked Gafni and his party for incompetence. Its “Hapeles” newspaper devoted its lead story on Friday to attacking ultra-Orthodox politicians over the High Court’s decision, which follows the cabinet decision two weeks ago to provide a permanent separate non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“It is actually a government with 61 seats [in the Knesset] that relies on ultra-Orthodox votes that has adopted the shameful decisions, which have destructive significance over the long term,” the paper stated. “Anyone who thought that in a government of 61 seats [the ultra-Orthodox parties] would achieve the maximum and optimal circumstances – and certainly would not lend a hand to an opening in the fence the likes of which there has not been – is dumbfounded and has difficulty comprehending where we have come.”

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef also attacked the High Court ruling, referring to it as “pathetic” and “scandalous.” Reform Jews, he said, are “undermining the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and making use of halakha [traditional Jewish religious law] for their needs, only when it is convenient for them.” For its part, the Reform movement replied: “Rabbi Yosef will continue to use unbecoming language, and we will continue to create facts on the ground.”

On Thursday, a panel of three High Court justices, Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran and Court President Miriam Naor, granted an appeal by the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and overturned a Be’er Sheva administrative court decision that would have permitted barring access for ritual immersion in public mikvehs to converts whose conversions were not being performed under state auspices.

Although the ruling related to an appeal filed against the Be’er Sheva religious council and the Religious Services Ministry, the panel of justices ruled that their decision would have general application throughout the country.

The conduct of the Be’er Sheva religious council and the Religious Services Ministry in barring converts converting under non-state non-Orthodox auspices constituted impermissible discrimination, Justice Rubinstein ruled.

“From the moment that the state established public mikvehs and put them at the public’s disposal – including for the purposes of conversion – it cannot pursue a policy of double standards in the use of them.” And Rubinstein added: “The state’s choice not to supervise immersion carried out in the context of private conversion cannot justify preventing immersion of such a nature.”