The Center for Women’s Justice has welcomed a decision by the High Court of Justice demanding that Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Council of the Chief Rabbinate explain within 45 days why they have barred single women from public ritual baths.

Under Jewish law, married women must immerse themselves in a mikve following the completion of their menstrual cycle, before they are permitted to have sexual relations with their husbands again.

But the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) says that many unmarried women also seek to use a mikve for different purposes, including immersion before Yom Kippur or going up to the Temple Mount, for which Jewish law requires immersion, as well as religiously observant, unmarried women who have sexual relations with their partner.

However, the Chief Rabbinate argues that single women, whether they are unmarried, divorced or widowed, are forbidden by Jewish law from immersing in a mikve and that public mikvaot are for the exclusive use of married women.

Metzger reiterated this stance in a 2008 letter to rabbinate-employed rabbis asking them to instruct mikve attendants to refuse entry to the mikvaot to unmarried women “under any circumstances.”

CWJ says that mikve attendants, employed by the rabbinate at all public mikvaot, routinely question women wishing to use the facilities about their marital status and refuse entry to those who are unmarried.

In addition, CWJ claims that many women who wish to marry in a non- Orthodox ceremony and immerse in the ritual bath before the wedding, as required by Jewish law, are also refused entry to mikvaot.

CWJ argues that these practices contravene Israeli law pertaining to freedom of religion and protection against religious coercion, constitutes an invasion of privacy, and is also discriminatory, since men of any marital status, as well as married women, may use mikvaot without hindrance.

The High Court issued an order last Tuesday demanding that the state explain why it does not permit women who want to immerse in a mikve to do so without being questioned as to their purpose.

“The state has no right to impose its values on these women,” said Susan Weiss, the founding director of CWJ, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

“This issue is also a microcosm for the many human rights problems women face in this country and highlights the egregious power the rabbinate has over women. It is right that they should have to account and justify their power over us proves how egregious,” Weiss asserted.

She also pointed out that mikvaot are publicly funded.

“The bottom line is that we are asking state-funded authorities to refrain from becoming involved in women’s personal reasons for wanting to immerse themselves in a mikve, and to recognize that each woman has the right to choose for herself,” she added.

In general, Orthodox rabbis are extremely reluctant to permit unmarried women to use mikvaot due to concern that it could be seen as giving rabbinic sanction to extra-marital sex, forbidden by Jewish law.

The prohibition is of a rabbinic, and so slightly less severe, nature, whereas having sexual relations without having immersed in a mikve is prohibited by the Torah and incurs the punishment of “spiritual excommunication.”

Some observant women, who despite the prohibition on sex out of wedlock nevertheless have sexual relations with their partners, therefore wish to mitigate their infraction of Jewish law by immersing.

During the times of the First and Second Temples, women were accustomed to use mikvaot in order to pray at the Temple and to engage in other rituals.

However, the rabbis of the 10th century CE forbade unmarried women from immersing.

This prohibition was enacted so that men would not be encouraged to think that it would be permissible to have sex with a woman who had immersed.

Rabbis have also refused to permit unmarried women to immerse for the purposes of visiting the Temple Mount, which according to Jewish law can only be done after visiting a mikve, out of concern that it could act as a gateway for permission to immerse for the purposes of having extra-marital sex.

CWJ argues that regardless of the issues with Jewish law, state bodies have no legal right to prevent someone from using public facilities. Weiss also argued that the increase in incidents of discrimination against women in the public domain on religious grounds is in part caused by a failure to protect women’s legal rights, and that the rabbinate’s refusal to allow unmarried women to use mikvaot is yet another example of the state sanctioning the violation of these rights.

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