In Ongoing Battle Against Reform Jews, MKs Seek ultra-Orthodox Monopoly on State-run Ritual Baths

To stem growing recognition of Reform and Conservative movements, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers propose legislation anchoring Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over mikvehs.

MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, in December, 2015.
Emil Salman

As part of their battle against official recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties have proposed legislation that would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority over the country’s state-funded mikveh (ritual bath) network.

The bill, submitted Monday by MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ), was also sponsored by four MKs from Habayit Hayehudi.

The proposal would circumvent a ruling last month by the High Court of Justice that permitted individuals converting under Reform or Conservative auspices to immerse themselves in the baths as part of that process. The new legislation, however, states that use of public mikvehs, “will be permitted solely for the purpose of immersion in accordance with Jewish law” – that is, “for the purpose of observing Jewish law and Jewish custom according to the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh [the 16th-century code of Jewish law] and in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate Council.”

On Sunday the heads of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to complain about the growing recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as reflected by the recent arrangement of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and by the High Court ruling on the ritual baths. The leaders demanded enactment of legislation that would assure that the movements not receive formal recognition. The new legislation would seem to be the first step in that direction.

Another objective of the bill is to head off a petition pending before the High Court by Orthodox women who are seeking the right to immerse in the mikveh without the presence of an attendant, in contravention of long-standing procedures.

Likud’s coalition agreement with UTJ gives it veto rights on issues of religion and state, and it isn’t clear how the proposal would pass without substantial coalition support.

For her part, on Sunday, MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) a coalition member, declared that she would not support the bill, calling it “offensive and superfluous.” She said it could potentially prevent women from participating in ritual immersion for various reasons that aren’t strictly related to halakha (traditional Jewish law), for example, as part of prayers for an easy birth, for example.

Said attorney Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in the country: “Gafni and his partners are displaying the hysteria and the fear that characterizes collapsing monopolies Conservative Judaism will continue to be the sane, egalitarian and Israeli-Jewish home for its hundreds of thousands of members and our hundreds of converts.”

Ronny Hazan, a leader of the unofficial “Let us immerse in peace” protest, said the proposed legislation is “unfortunate and harms those who immerse in all communities.” Of the support for the bill by Habayit Hayehudi MKs, she said, “The party members who signed off on the bill chose to lead this injustice even if it means undermining the autonomy of women who engage in ritual immersion.”