This week, Israel’s Supreme Court will hear a petition demanding that mikve,
or ritual baths, controlled by religious councils be opened to single women.
state’s ultra-Orthodox authorities have refused to let single women immerse in
their mikvaot – even though they are government operated – because they believe
that mikvaot should only be used by married women. Since mikve use following
menstruation is necessary – in traditional Jewish law – prior to sexual
intercourse, and since only married women – according to traditional Jewish law
– can have sex, single women are being locked out.
The social issue of
Orthodox women seeking to go to the mikve prior to marriage is one that is
familiar to the general Jewish community for almost 50 years. So-called
“tefillin dates,” which gained popularity in the wake of the sexual revolution
of the 1960s, were already a fad in the 1970s.
As mikve use became more trendy
among married women, single women who sought to observe the laws of Jewish
‘family’ purity while at the same time engaging in premarital sex began
frequenting mikvaot. In the past decade, as the crisis of Jewish singles has
reached unprecedented proportions, and as more Orthodox young women are marrying
later, there is an even greater number of single women using mikvaot.
addition, there are some single women who seek to use the mikve as a religious
ritual independent of their interest in engaging in sexual activity prior to
But beyond the social dimensions of this case, I believe that
what is really at stake is the question of power and particularly, the power of
Jewish life. Mikvaot in Israel are built with public money and are overseen – at
least in theory – by public institutions. But all too often, what goes on inside
the mikve is not subject to any oversight.
The keys to the mikve are
left in the hands a of a select few people. The ITIM hotline has received no
small amount of complaints about mikve attendants over the past few years. To a
large extent, what goes on in the mikve, stays in the mikve.
of control over mikvaot should be particularly concerning to the average Israeli
citizen. Under the current administration, 69 mikvaot have been approved for
construction (40 have already been built!) and another 200 have undergone
renovations. Hundreds of millions of tax shekels are being spent on the building
and maintenance of institutions that are essentially locking people out based on
their legal status.
Even if one thinks that morally or according to Halacha it is
inappropriate for single women to go to the mikve, it seems to me that the
Supreme Court has a responsibility to rein in the religious council’s power, and
to stop them from extending their power outside of their
What’s at stake here is not simply the rights of a number
of single women. Who holds the power at the mikve is emblematic of who controls
Jewish life in Israel. The time has come for the state to allow people to live
full Jewish lives and not to put up obstacles in their way.
The writer, a
rabbi, is the founder and director of ITIM, which helps people interact with the