A mikva, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group has filed a petition to the High Court of Justice requesting that the Ministry of Religious Services instruct mikve attendants to allow women to conduct their immersions as they see fit, without interference.
The organization argues in its petition that such interference contravenes the rights to privacy, religious freedom and human autonomy, and should be halted immediately.
Religiously observant women immerse themselves in a mikve, or ritual bath, once a month after their menstrual period. The practice is considered a critical aspect of Jewish life.
In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of women who wish to use a mikve, but only on their own terms or in accordance with the recommendations of their own rabbi or religious adviser. This attitude has created friction with the service providers, from the ministry on down to the local religious councils, which administer the ritual baths, and the attendants, who are employed by the councils.
Numerous incidents and complaints have been reported about mikve attendants not allowing women to prepare for immersion or immerse themselves in accordance with their own wishes. Others are said to insist on asking intrusive questions of a personal nature and conducting physical examinations of the women.
The ministry issued new guidelines in April 2014 stating that mikve attendants may not question or examine a woman without her consent; that the privacy of women be respected; and that responsibility for correct immersion is on the woman, not the attendant.
But in petitioning the High Court, ITIM brought the complaints of 13 women stating that despite the new guidelines, mikve attendants have continued to prevent them from conducting their immersions according to their own wishes. The organization is also asking the court to prohibit the ministry and mikve attendants from insisting that an attendant be present at the time of the immersion.
Although it is normative Orthodox practice that someone be present to check that the immersion satisfies the requirements of Jewish law, some women, including victims of sexual abuse, have in recent years requested either to immerse themselves alone or with a friend.
These requests are almost always refused, ITIM says, stating in its petition that some opinions in Jewish law allow for immersion without someone being needed to check. It added that the refusal to allow this practice injured basic rights of privacy, autonomy and freedom of religion.
Attorney Sara Weinberg, who worked on the petition, said there was no similar phenomenon in which women requesting to utilize a public service lost their basic civil rights.
“Immersing in a mikve is one the most intimate commandments, which was always between a woman and her Creator,” Weinberg said. “This external interference expropriates from women who wish to immerse not only autonomy over their bodies, but also control and responsibility over their own religious world.”