A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
The government has proposed a compromise solution to the controversy over ritual bath access, whereby the Jewish Agency could fund the construction of up to four such baths (mikvaot) for the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Movements in Israel.
The proposal came after efforts by United Torah Judaism to pass a law banning the progressive Jewish denominations from using mikvaot for conversion ceremonies.
On Monday morning, the Knesset Interior Committee approved the UTJ bill for its first reading in the Knesset, which would allow local religious councils, which run public mikvaot, the right to refuse access to the baths under its control.
The UTJ proposed its legislation following a Supreme Court decision in February which ruled that it is illegal for staterun baths to ban the Reform and Masorti movements from using these facilities for conversion ceremonies.
Coalition chairman and Likud MK David Bitan helped formulate the compromise whereby the Jewish Agency could step in to build between two to four mikvaot around the country for progressive Jewish movements to use for conversion ceremonies.
According to the plan, the Reform and Masorti movements would be responsible for maintaining the baths once they are built.
Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, who proposed the restrictive legislation, said during the committee hearing that he is against the compromise. It is possible, however, that he and UTJ will not actively derail the proposal.
At the same time, the director of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, said his movement would oppose the compromise if the money used to construct the mikvaot were to come from funds provided to the Jewish Agency by Diaspora Jewry and not from the state.
Kariv added that the Reform Movement would only agree to the proposal if the state also funded the maintenance of the baths and the wages of any staff needed to operate them. Such demands were absent from the government’s compromise.
“Like the issue of the Western Wall, this is a test of the declarations of the prime minister, who said that all Jews should feel at home in the State of Israel,” said Kariv.
“Any expectation that Diaspora Jewry will fund the establishment of mikvaot for Israeli citizens and residents is totally unreasonable and only a solution in which the government of Israel provides equal services to Jews from all denominations can be a basis for compromise.”
Kariv added that new baths would have to be completed before UTJ’s law goes into effect for the Reform Movement to agree to the proposal.
Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess said similarly that the denomination would accept the government’s proposal only if the money used by the Jewish Agency for building the baths was earmarked by the government for this specific purpose, and did not come from private donations from the Diaspora or from funds given by Jewish federations in North America to the agency.
“The Jewish Agency is not a vehicle for the government to ease its political problems,” said Hess. He added that even if the proposal is implemented, UTJ’s law should not be approved by the Knesset.
“The coalition cannot permit itself to pass a law circumventing the High Court of Justice, especially one that demonstrates the most blatant disrespect to the majority of world Jewry and tens of thousands of Jews in Israel,” Hess said.
“The state of the Jews cannot establish through legislation in the Knesset that there will be class A Jews and class B Jews.”
Despite strong criticism of the UTJ bill by the Reform and Masorti leadership, coalition MKs Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) said that they had nevertheless prevented any infringement of the rights of women using public mikvaot.
Gafni’s first draft of the bill stipulates that all bathing rituals would be conducted only in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate and Jewish law.
His stipulation sparked concern from women’s rights groups. They worried that the regulations issued in recent years which prohibit bath attendants from conducting unwanted questioning or inspections of women could be overturned.
“The danger to women immersing has been removed, and I welcome this,” said Azaria. “This is a big achievement for religious feminism.”
However, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie was sharply critical of Azaria, saying that the Kulanu MK had given an imprimatur to what she called a discriminatory bill.
“The bill circumvents the High Court of Justice, in contravention of commitments by Kulanu, and has serious constitutional problems. It is also written ambiguously so that local religious councils can take authority upon themselves to discriminate between different communities without limit and without criteria.”
She added: “This is a wretched bill and another stain on the relationship between religion and state in Israel and spits again in the face of Diaspora Jewry and the community of women who immerse in mikvaot.”