The ITIM religious services group is seeking to bring about reforms in the way women can make use of mikvaot (ritual baths) and reduce the concern some women have when going to immerse.
Mikvaot are funded and maintained by local religious councils, which are responsible for the religious services in cities and other municipal jurisdictions, and are therefore a public service. However, in recent years, increasing numbers of women have complained that they have come under intense scrutiny from female mikve attendants regarding their observance of what are known as “family purity” laws and customs.
Jewish law requires a husband and wife to refrain from physical contact and sexual relations for the duration of the woman’s period plus another seven days.
At the end of this time, religiously observant women immerse in a mikve, after which the couple may resume physical relations.
Within the Orthodox world, observance of family purity is considered a critical aspect of Jewish life.
Local religious councils employ mikve attendants to assist women in correctly performing their ritual immersion.
But ITIM says it regularly receives complaints from women that the attendants are overly zealous in the assistance they provide.
The Religious Services Ministry recently issued new guidelines for attendants, which state explicitly that they may not ask the women who use the mikve intrusive questions relating to family purity, nor may they insist on conducting physical examinations, as some have reported in the past.
It is a widespread practice for the attendants to be present in the room when women immerse in the mikve, to ensure that the process is done in accordance with Jewish law. Immersion needs to be performed naked, but many women are uncomfortable with immersing in the presence of an attendant for reasons of privacy, spiritual concentration and similar concerns.
The ministry guidelines do not explicitly state that a woman using a public mikve may insist on not having an attendant present.
ITIM attorney Sara Weinberg recently told The Jerusalem Post that although many women do not mind and often request the presence of an attendant, women who are uncomfortable with such a situation are still required to have an attendant present when they immerse.
This situation, ITIM says, constitutes a severe injury to freedom of religious practice, and the right to privacy and human autonomy.
“No one would accept a situation in a kosher restaurant in which a waiter or manager or kashrut supervisor asks the patrons if they have eaten meat in the last six hours, before agreeing to serve them coffee,” argues Weinberg, referring to kashrut laws that mandate waiting between eating meat and dairy.
She said ITIM had frequently heard complaints in which mikve attendants insisted on certain practices or customs against the wishes of the woman immersing.
When women are naked or in a towel in front of the attendant, they feel more vulnerable and exposed, and are less willing to insist on immersing in accordance with their own wishes, said Weinberg.
Not only is the immersion ritual a spiritually sensitive process, she continued, it also comes at the end of an emotionally intense period in which a husband and wife have been unable to touch each other for approximately two weeks. This leads to heightened sensitivity that can increase a woman’s sense of vulnerability at the mikve, she said.
ITIM has also noted that some women who were victims of sexual abuse are particularly concerned about their visits to the mikve, and the experience can cause heightened anxiety.
According to Weinberg, some women who have approached ITIM about this issue have experienced symptoms of anxiety and other post-traumatic indicators.
In one case, a woman who had experienced sexual abuse in her childhood said that “the possibility that her right to determine who can and cannot see her naked, and what she does with her body, might be denied” would cause a deterioration in her psychological status from the beginning of her period. This included panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks to the childhood incident, as well as dissociative experiences.
At the mikve itself, the woman would again experience panic attacks.
“I feel physically, in my body, the pain I felt from my memory of the [sexual] attack. When I go into the water, I feel completely closed off; my whole body is in a defensive posture,” the woman said in a testimony.
ITIM approached the Religious Services Ministry earlier this year and asked it to clarify in the regulations that women must be able to immerse according to their own customs and wishes, and explicitly state that women may insist on not having a mikve attendant in the room when they immerse.
The organization has yet to receive a response from the ministry regarding that request, and says it will pursue the issue further after a new government is formed.
On Monday, the ministry emphasized to the Post that the regulations did stress that mikve attendants were now forbidden to insist on performing any checks or asking questions to which the women didn’t want to be subjected. The ministry added that the regulations also explicitly required that attendants respect the privacy of the women immersing, but did not relate to questions about the attendants’ presence.