This morning I received a Facebook posting that parodies Indira Menzel’s song “Let It Go.” In the short clip, two young men, dressed in Egyptian regalia, play Moses and an adviser to Pharaoh. The Moses character implores: “Let us go, let us go, can’t hold my people back anymore.” And in response to the adviser’s indifference, Moses warns: “The worst comes after plague nine.”
The clip’s refrain and warning play in my mind as I read the new circular published by Elhanan Glatt, director-general of the Religious Services Ministry.
In it, Glatt reiterates that – in accordance with the 2008 opinion rendered by then-chief rabbi Yona Metzger – it is prohibited for single women to use the mikve. What’s more, even married women are not allowed to use the mikve for personal, spiritual reasons unrelated to purification in anticipation of sexual relations. Only immersion for the purpose of conjugal relations is a “religious service” that the Rabbinic Council must provide women. But then, the circular adds: “That said, and for reasons of respect for privacy alone, it is hereby clarified that bath attendants are prohibited from asking women who come to immerse any questions regarding their personal status – whether they are married, single, etc. And they cannot make immersion conditional on answering such questions.... Responsibility for [obeying or disobeying religious prohibitions] lies with the woman immersing alone.”
In other words, the circular has adopted the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to women and the mikve. In addition, it adjures – obliquely and not so obliquely, one time after the next – that bath attendants must “respect the privacy” of women who frequent the mikve. Women should be “free,” after all, to sin or not to sin, to make their own decisions with regard to how and why they use the mikve.
While the poetry of “freedom” is indeed music to my democracy- starved ears during this Passover holiday season, it did not arise sui generis, out-of-the-blue, spontaneously generated from the liberal impulses of the director-general of Religious Services.
Had Plia Oryah, a single woman denied use of the mikve, not stood on her civic rights, and had the Center for Women’s Justice, together with Kolech, not filed a petition on Oryah’s behalf with the High Court of Justice in 2011, Rabbi Metzger’s banning of the use of the state-funded mikve for wayward and ill-advised women would have stood – uncompromising and unassailed.
The petition, entitled Plia Oryah v. the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry and others (High Court of Justice 9740/11), describes not only how the Chief Rabbinate denied the use of the mikve to single women like Oryah, but also how it barred the use of the mikve for divorced women, Conservative and Reform converts, brides who were not getting married by Orthodox rabbis (since such women are not really married, after all), and for women who wanted to use the mikve before Yom Kippur or before going up to the Temple Mount.
The petition called for the state to provide equal access to women to use the mikve, as well as to respect the privacy of women and their freedom from religion (as defined by the rabbinate) and of religion (as their conscience dictates).
Had the petition not been filed by the non-profit NGOs, no one in the government would have stepped in to defend Oryah’s interests. There is no government office in the State of Israel similar to the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. No one in the government protects the human rights of Israeli citizens. Certainly not the religious services minister.
The attorney-general’s office is regularly assigned the responsibility of responding to petitions brought against the rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry by aggrieved citizens. But it views its responsibilities as “protecting the interests of the state” which, in the case at hand, means protecting the policies of the Chief Rabbinate and its halacha. The attorney-general’s office does not see its job as protecting citizen’s rights.
In its written response to Oryah’s petition, the office urged the Supreme Court to deny her request to gain access to the state-financed mikve services.
They wrote: “The Rabbinic Council, an administrative body constructed by law, is subject to Halacha with respect to all matters within its duties and jurisdiction, and that Halacha is the operative law with respect to the administration of religious services.... According to Halacha, ritual immersion is restricted to married women only and it is prohibited to allow immersion for single women.”
And if it is the attorney-general’s job is to protect the state from its citizens, whose job is it to protect Israeli citizens from human rights violations of the state? When I asked this of the representative from the attorney-general’s office, she responded with a blank stare.
And lest anyone get confused, the new circular did not come about as a result of a clear and express decision of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to issue a decision setting forth, in no uncertain terms, the rights of Israeli women to privacy and freedom of religion.
Instead, the court urged the rabbinate to adopt the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggested by CWJ at the first hearing. When the rabbinate agreed, the court insisted that CWJ withdraw its petition. Case closed.
The court, politically astute and averse to any confrontation with the religious establishment, refuses to step on rabbinic toes and thus never misses an opportunity to miss the opportunity to articulate its values and worldview in a way that could serve as a guide and direction for Israeli society.
Nor did the new circular arise as a result of the enlightenment of MK Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan of Bayit Yehudi, despite the press hype on the matter. Had the rabbinate’s arm not been twisted to agree to the don’t ask, don’t tell policy, Ben-Dahan would not have suggested any relief for Israeli women. He made no such suggestion in 2008 when Rabbi Metzger first circulated his opinion, at which time Ben-Dahan sat as secretary of the rabbinic courts.
Full credit in the case at hand for protecting the human rights of Israeli women must go to Israel’s civil society and its NGOs.
No one in the government was willing to rise to the occasion – not the rabbinate, the attorney-general’s office, the Knesset, or even the Supreme Court. It is high time that this change. The government of the State of Israel must designate a body whose express purpose is to protect the civil and human rights of Israeli citizens, in particular against violations by state authorities.
Till then, more power to Israeli NGOs.
And may the values (begrudgingly but nonetheless) embraced in the 2014 circular by the director-general of the Religious Services Ministry be an expression of even bigger “freedoms” to come. In the words of our Facebook Moses: “Let us go, let us go, can’t hold my people back anymore.” ■
The writer is the founding director of the Center for Women’s Justic