The court and the ‘mikve’

Authorities have refused to let single women immerse in their mikvaot because they believe that mikvaot should only be used by married women.

Mikve (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Mikve (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
This week, Israel’s Supreme Court will hear a petition demanding that mikve, or ritual baths, controlled by religious councils be opened to single women.
The state’s ultra-Orthodox authorities have refused to let single women immerse in their mikvaot – even though they are government operated – because they believe that mikvaot should only be used by married women. Since mikve use following menstruation is necessary – in traditional Jewish law – prior to sexual intercourse, and since only married women – according to traditional Jewish law – can have sex, single women are being locked out.
The social issue of Orthodox women seeking to go to the mikve prior to marriage is one that is familiar to the general Jewish community for almost 50 years. So-called “tefillin dates,” which gained popularity in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, were already a fad in the 1970s.
As mikve use became more trendy among married women, single women who sought to observe the laws of Jewish ‘family’ purity while at the same time engaging in premarital sex began frequenting mikvaot. In the past decade, as the crisis of Jewish singles has reached unprecedented proportions, and as more Orthodox young women are marrying later, there is an even greater number of single women using mikvaot.
In addition, there are some single women who seek to use the mikve as a religious ritual independent of their interest in engaging in sexual activity prior to marriage.
But beyond the social dimensions of this case, I believe that what is really at stake is the question of power and particularly, the power of Jewish life. Mikvaot in Israel are built with public money and are overseen – at least in theory – by public institutions. But all too often, what goes on inside the mikve is not subject to any oversight.
The keys to the mikve are left in the hands a of a select few people. The ITIM hotline has received no small amount of complaints about mikve attendants over the past few years. To a large extent, what goes on in the mikve, stays in the mikve.
The issue of control over mikvaot should be particularly concerning to the average Israeli citizen. Under the current administration, 69 mikvaot have been approved for construction (40 have already been built!) and another 200 have undergone renovations. Hundreds of millions of tax shekels are being spent on the building and maintenance of institutions that are essentially locking people out based on their legal status.
Even if one thinks that morally or according to Halacha it is inappropriate for single women to go to the mikve, it seems to me that the Supreme Court has a responsibility to rein in the religious council’s power, and to stop them from extending their power outside of their jurisdiction.
What’s at stake here is not simply the rights of a number of single women. Who holds the power at the mikve is emblematic of who controls Jewish life in Israel. The time has come for the state to allow people to live full Jewish lives and not to put up obstacles in their way.The writer, a rabbi, is the founder and director of ITIM, which helps people interact with the religious establishment.