Israel's Mikveh Battles Go Back to Original Compromise: Special Ritual Baths for non-Orthodox Jews

After Conservative and Reform movements sued to have access to ritual baths under Orthodox control, original compromise surfaces again.

Nir Keidar

The so called "mikveh battles” between non-Orthodox movements in Israel and the government have circled back to the concept first raised by the courts: to build special ritual baths for members of these communities around the country. A compromise to that effect is taking shape in Knesset.

The story began earlier this year, when as a result of discussion on the so-called Mikvehs Law, Conservative and Reform movements demanded in a lawsuit that their members be entitled to immerse in the public baths run under the auspices of Orthodox religious councils.

During the court discussions, a compromise was suggested, more than once, that the state simply build such facilities for these communities. The movements agreed, but the state, mostly in the form of the Religious Services Ministry, opposed the idea.

In February, the High Court of Justice intervened in favor of the non-Orthodox groups, and ruled that since converts need to undergo ritual immersion as part of their conversion process, they must be allowed entry into the public mikvehs.

The compromise now taking shape in parliament proposes to postpone implementation of the law by nine months, to give the state time to build facilities for Conservative and Reform converts. The Jewish Agency is expected to bear the construction costs.

MK David Bitan, in December 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Meanwhile, the Knesset will use that time to discuss a softened version of the law that would accommodate the High Court ruling. This new version was brought up for debate in the Knesset on Monday by coalition whip David Bitan, who sponsored the law in the first place.

“We do not mean to pass a law that circumvents the [High Court],” Bitan said Monday. “We want to find a solution to the problem that the court raised.”

Apparently two to four baths will be built for the local Reform and Conservative communities, so they can perform ritual immersion according to their custom. Said Bitan: “We have to grant equal allocation of resources to all.”

Last week the Interior Affairs Committee of the Knesset discussed legislation, sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which was indeed designed to circumvent February's High Court ruling – but from the other direction. This bill states that immersion in the baths would have to be done in accordance with the Shulhan Arukh code of Jewish law, and be supervised by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The bill passed the first reading, and although coalition members are divided with respect to its merits, it is now being pushed anew by MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ).

Sources in Israel's Conservative community say they do not rule out “pragmatic solutions that respect all the sides,” but insist they will not be party to efforts to circumvent the courts.

Said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the movement of Conservative Judaism in Israel: “Legislation without regulation would constitute a declaration of war on world Jewry.”