Bill Aimed at Keeping non-Orthodox From Ritual Baths Advances in Knesset

Initiated by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, the bill would circumvent High Court ruling allowing Reform, Conservative Jews to immerse in state mikvaot.

MK Moshe Gafni in a meeting of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on March 16, 2016.
Emil Salman

A bill that would require local Jewish ritual baths to operate strictly according to halakha and to adhere to the guidelines of the Chief Rabbinate was passed by the Knesset in its preliminary reading on Wednesday.

The bill, initiated by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), is aimed at circumventing the High Court of Justice ruling last month that obligates religious councils to allow those converting to Judaism via the Reform and Conservative movements to immerse in publicly funded ritual baths, or mikvaot, as part of the conversion process.

According to Gafni, the High Court ruling violates the status quo on issues of religion and state. The bill’s opponents claim that it will harm not only the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism but the large population of women who immerse in the mikvaot regularly.

The women, including Orthodox women, fear that the bill will lead to more intense violations of their privacy. Currently the questions asked by mikveh attendants before they permit women to immerse vary in their invasiveness from mikveh to mikveh. There are some mikvaot, for example, where attendants turn a blind eye when unmarried women immerse before sexual relations, even though this contravenes Jewish law, the halakha. If the law will allow only strictly halakhic immersion, attendants will be obligated to be more stringent. 

The bill passed 42-38, and will now go to the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee for processing. “This law doesn’t come to prevent Reform and Conservative people from immersing in the mikveh,” Gafni told the Knesset during the debate, adding that the country has many private mikvaot to which the law will not apply. “But the state’s public mikvaot are for halakhic immersion.”

He stressed that the bill will not change the current situation and promised that in committee the law would be phrased “in a way that it will be clear that there will be no change in the status of the women who immerse.” He added, “Mikveh is a halakhic concept. It’s not a bathhouse or a Turkish hamam.”

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas), who supports the bill, castigated the Reform and Conservative movements. 

“He who doesn’t accept the authority of the Torah and aggressively trample on its commandments cannot claim that he represents religion in Israel,” Azoulay said. “These groups, who want to change Torah and halakha, are not religious streams in Israel. Just as we wouldn’t allow a doctor to get near a hospital using witchcraft and still call him a doctor, we cannot allow these groups to get near the Torah of Israel.”

Earlier this week, after the bill got the backing of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, legal sources told Haaretz that the bill has legal problems and it isn’t clear how they might be resolved. A senior coalition source said that the bill would be torpedoed unless it gets the approval of the Habayit Hayehudi party, which opposes the bill as currently written.

The joint headquarters of religious organizations that oppose the bill issued a statement saying, “We expect the MKs of the coalition, and particularly the members of the Habayit Hayehudi faction who promised that they wouldn’t vote for the bill unless it was amended, to keep their promise and prevent further offense to those women who immerse. The mikveh is a public resource and one cannot expropriate the autonomy of a woman who immerses through institutional coercion dictated solely by men. This bill should concern every woman and man in Israel because it gives exclusive authority to an ultra-Orthodox worldview that isn’t required by halakha.”

The organizations that are part of the team fighting the bill are the Torah and Labor Faithful, Itim, Kolech, Let Us Immerse in Peace and the Yerushalmim faction on the Jerusalem City Council and Advot, a group that works to improve the mikveh experience.

The bill was also criticized by the Israel Democracy Institute, whose president, Yohanan Plesner, said, “This is a contemptible bill which continues the trend of alienation and contempt that large numbers of Israelis feel toward the rabbinic establishment. It seems the whole purpose of the rabbinic establishment is to create a barrier, to exclude entire populations, isolate Israel and undermine it on a strategic level vis a vis the Diaspora.”

Before the vote several MKs also attacked the bill. “I’m a member of the Conservative movement and I was insulted here by the words of the religious services minister who said we aren’t considered Jews,” said MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union). “Most of the Jews in the Diaspora are Reform and Conservative. You want to tell them that they’re not Jews and they can’t live here in Israel?”

“You’re not interested in the mikvaot, you’re interested in the foothold,” said MK Zehava Galon (Meretz). She was joined by MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who said that the mikvaot belong to the public, and “Never in Jewish history was there interference in the customs of women and of the Jewish people with regard to mikveh immersion. This bill will undermine women in the State of Israel.”