A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
The latest skirmish in the war of the Jews was won this week by the forces of uncompromising ultra-Orthodoxy, which passed the so-called “Mikve Law” disenfranchising non-Orthodox Jews. But it will be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, destined eventually to be overturned by the High Court of Justice as unconstitutional.
The Mikve Law is but the latest attempt by fundamentalists to deny the Jewish identity of other streams of Judaism.
Since the law was specifically designed to ban the non-Orthodox from using public mikvaot, funded by Israel’s taxpayers, for use in concluding the process of converting to Judaism, it must be seen in the context of the “Who is a Jew” dispute that has waxed and waned over the decades.
For behind the refusal to permit newly Jewish acolytes to complete their conversion in a ritual bath, is the fundamental denial of their Jewishness. The question of “Who is a Jew” has become focused on “What is a mikve.” In February the Supreme Court ruled that a publicly funded ritual bath must be accessible by all who wish to use it.
The situation is similar to the still-suspended agreement over public access to the Western Wall prayer areas – both traditional Orthodox and egalitarian – whose implementation has been held up by the ultra-Orthodox view that recognizing a common entrance to the site would constitute recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements.
Setting aside the differences in conversion practices in the Diaspora, which are mostly accepted here, the denial of access to the Western Wall is part of the denial of the non-Orthodox per se. Prohibiting non-Orthodox converts access to public mikvaot is to deny them access to Judaism itself and contradicts the basic values of our heritage.
Moreover, the present round of intolerance highlights the basic inconsistency of Orthodox conversion. Under the Chief Rabbinate, Jews are fundamentally unequal. While a person born to a Jewish mother is considered to be a Jew and may grow up being religiously observant or secular by choice, in Israel a person can convert only as a declared Orthodox Jew – and even risks being defrocked if found to be less than strictly observant.
At a time when Israel is fighting internationally against the calumnies of the BDS movement, particularly its specious accusations of apartheid, our politicians from so-called religious parties have scored an own-goal. BDS adherents may expect signs being posted at the Western Wall and the country’s mikvaot reading “Orthodox Only” and “No Non-Orthodox Allowed.”
Part of the Mikve Law’s attempt to bypass the Supreme Court’s decision was the apartheid-like idea to have the government establish several “separate but unequal” mikvaot for the progressive Jewish movements. If this is ever implemented, it will inevitably result in another High Court petition for equality.
It would be a mistake to think that the Mikve Law and the Western Wall situation is a parochial, local affair that does not affect Diaspora Jewry, particularly American Jews.
Indeed, they are well informed of every development in Israel, especially the ongoing struggle for the recognition of progressive streams of Judaism in Israel.
This struggle is an uphill battle against a vile combination of political blackmail and religious intolerance, as embodied by the chairman of the United Torah Judaism Party, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman. He blatantly declared on Israel Radio that his party would not stay in a government that recognizes the Reform and Conservative movements.
Litzman cynically bet that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would choose political survival based on his alliance with the haredi parties over his pious promises to make Israel a home for all Jews. Just in case Diaspora Jews were listening, Litzman declared: “The Reform don’t know what mikvaot are. They are jacuzzis for them,” he said.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative Movement) in Israel, condemned Litzman’s denigration of the non-Orthodox, telling The Jerusalem Post, “It’s a strategic threat to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”
The threats have grown over the past months, such as with the rollback of laws ensuring an equal burden of military service, providing a core curriculum (math and English) for yeshiva education, and now denying access to public mikvaot to the non-Orthodox.
Israel has a long way to go to fulfill the promise of religious equality heralded in our Declaration of Independence.
Our goal must be nothing less than to guarantee a citizen’s right to worship as he or she sees fit, free from the interference of the state.