A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
In his first major clash with haredi parties, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday declared the bill for restricting mikve use to those following haredi practice to be unconstitutional.
In unusually harsh language, after several legal opinions on other controversial legislative initiatives where Mandelblit demanded modifications but allowed the measures to pass, he called the current bill dead on arrival.
It passed a preliminary reading last week and has been put forward by haredi parties in the Knesset to respond to a High Court of Justice decision ordering the liberalization of access to mikvaot.
Mikvaot are used by religious Jews for ritual purification purposes. Until the High Court ruling, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups controlled the administration of the publicly funded ritual baths, frustrating Conservative (Masorti) and Reform Jews who wish to use them.
In a statement from Mandelblit’s office, he said he has given the government the legal opinion that the bill is unconstitutional because it restricts mikve use to a “specific halachic method in a way that totally prevents” the use of mikvaot “among those who have a different custom.”
This “harms the dignity of man anchored in the Basic Laws, as well as the right to equality,” he said.
In February, the Supreme Court ruled that the ban by local religious councils against Reform and Conservative use of mikvaot for converts was discriminatory and illegal, and that the non-Orthodox denominations must be allowed access to the mikvaot for their conversion ceremonies.
In response, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni introduced a bill, backed by the haredi parties (UTJ and Shas) and four Bayit Yehudi MKs, banning non-Orthodox conversions in public mikvaot.
The bill was approved in its preliminary reading in the Knesset last week.
Attorney Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, welcomed the attorney- general’s stance.
“The mikve law is not just unconstitutional, which is why the attorney-general cannot defend it the High Court, but is also anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist,” Hess said.
“This is a law which, if approved, would have marked the end of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.”
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, who fought against the damage the bill would have done to the autonomy of all women using public mikvaot, also praised Mandelblit for his decision.
“In Kulanu, we guaranteed that the law would not pass in its original form and that we would prevent any injury to [the rights of] religious and traditional women who use mikvaot,” she said.
“For many years, the voices of women have not been heard on these issues, but now our voices are being heard loud and clear.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said Mandelblit’s opinion was the “official seal on the general public’s disgust” with the rabbinic establishment.
“For years the haredi parties rejected any pragmatic solution to the issue of mikvaot, and it was them who brought about the Supreme Court ruling,” said Kariv.
“The proposed legislation was a direct continuation of this coercive behavior,” he continued, saying that it was now clear the bill was buried.