The mikve as a symbol of religious freedom
The rational majority in Israel can – and must – work to change the relationship between religion and state. The time for true religious freedom has come.
Mikve Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Since Israel has no constitution, and no basic law that defines the relationship between religion and state, exclusive religious jurisdiction over family life in Israel means that the religious courts of each faith recognized in Israel dictate their adherents’ marriage and divorce rituals.
The secular majority of each faith in Israel is involuntarily subjected to the control of unelected and unaccountable religious institutions that were never empowered by any democratic means by the public that they are supposed to serve. The Rabbinate not only dictates which rituals are required for a recognized Jewish marriage in Israel, but can prevent those marriage rituals, which have been embraced and diversified, from being practiced in any way outside of the prescribed tradition.
One of the requirements for Jewish religious marriage in Israel is immersion in the mikve, the ritual bath. Ritual washing takes two forms in Judaism: tvila, full body immersion in a mikveh, and netilat yadayim, washing the hands with a cup. In Judaism, immersion in a mikve is obligatory in different circumstances, like for women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth; for men to achieve ritual purity; to cleanse body fluids and skin conditions; during conversion to Judaism; to make utensils kosher for food; and following contact with a carcass or corpse.
Since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the consequent cancellation of the requirement of ritual purity, the mikve’s primary function is to purify relations between married spouses. According to Jewish law, extrapolated from the book of Leviticus, a married couple is prohibited from having sexual contact during the wife’s menstrual period. In Rabbinic literature, the menstruating woman is called a nida. The term nida can be understood as ex-communication, expulsion, banishment or exclusion, or alternately, as describing the flow of menstrual blood.
CONTEMPORARY TRADITIONALISTS argue that the mikve promotes a healthy marriage by regulating periods of abstinence. Yet the mikve has been seen by Jewish feminist critics as degrading, by assuming menstruation makes women’s bodies impure and unclean.
The entire concept of “family purity,” central to the traditional Jewish marriage (and a required counseling session for marriage candidates in Israel), was rejected by some feminists as patriarchal. Why should the antiquated tradition of bridal immersion in the mikve be required by the state to have your marriage recognized? Starting in the 1970s, Jewish feminists, mainly American Conservative and Reform Jews, reinvented the ritual immersion in the mikve. Alongside its traditional function, the mikve was reclaimed by women for healing after illness, operations or miscarriages, rape, divorce or death, to promote health, as a celebration of women’s traditions, and to mark changes in life.
Yet, these revitalized traditions can have no place in the rituals required by the rabbinate for a recognized Jewish marriage. A woman who fails to dip in the mikve, while being supervised by a government-recognized rabinit, and get a certificate affirming this, will not receive a marriage certificate, and the couple’s marriage will not be recognized – even if all other Rabbinate procedure was followed.
Of course, no Rabbi can dictate what meaning a woman attaches to her mikve experience, or stop her from using the mikve for reasons outside of the tradition.
But the fact that the rabbinate dictates the precise formula for recognized Jewish weddings in Israel, and illegalized all other rituals and traditions, negates the spirit of Judaism that they claim to want to preserve.
It’s time to end the rabbinic monopoly over Jewish faith and belief. The rational majority in Israel can – and must – work to change the relationship between religion and state. The time for true religious freedom has come.
The author is founder and executive director of New Family Organization.