Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This week ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center sued the Chief Rabbis Council of Israel as well as the Jerusalem Religious Council on behalf of 13 religious women who have had their basic rights violated in mikvehs. Since the lawsuit was filed, people continue to ask, “Why are you suing the rabbinate?” My goal here is to make it clear why an Orthodox rabbi would and should use such unconventional means to change Israeli policy.
We’ve sued the rabbinate out of a sense of justice.
For years, the mikveh has been sacrosanct, and no one has stood up for rights of women using it. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of women were forced to submit to (in some cases well meaning) mikveh attendants, no one stood up and said that red lines were being crossed. Our clients were blocked or even prevented from using the mikveh because they wanted to use a halachic standard different from one utilized by the local council. They were made to change their hairstyle, re-immerse a number of times, and submit to the whims (some too graphic to describe here, but all outlined in the brief) of the attendant. This year has seen a number of scandals related to areas once considered the private domain, and the time has come for women’s rights to be defended.
We’ve sued the rabbinate in order to attack the increasing myopic attitude in the rabbinate.
Jewish tradition has many approaches to mikveh use. But there is one dominant theme: women are to be trusted and are the masters of their own bodies. The brief we submitted to the Supreme Court has a halachic addendum which traces the halachic legitimacy of enabling women to use the mikveh without having to submit to the single standard adopted by the mikveh attendant. These past few weeks, we’ve seen the government move toward greater centralization on issues as diverse as conversion, rabbinical courts and kashrut. This centralization is bad for halacha and bad for Israel. It has to be stopped.
We’ve sued the rabbinate to make Israel’s public domain more Jewish.
Unlike previous lawsuits related to mikveh use, the 13 plaintiffs ITIM is representing are all religious married women. While we are sensitive to the needs of others to use the mikveh as a public entity, this case relates specifically to married women using the mikveh monthly out of a sense of religious obligation. I don’t question the intent of the religious councils that in most cases regulate the attitudes of the mikveh attendants, but I know that when a mikveh attendant tells a religious woman: “If I let you immerse the way you want to I will be fired,” we are not practicing normative Judaism. I still believe (remarkably) that there is a role for the Jewish democratic state to play in enabling Jewish life. I haven’t given up on the notion of a connection between synagogue and state. But we need to provide a balance that enables people’s basic rights to be expressed.
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The rabbinate isn’t all bad. But it suffers from (among other things) a lack of accountability. In the months preceding the lawsuit, we filed multiple requests to change the way mikvehs work. They all fell on deaf ears. And if we have to fight in order to make Israel more democratic and more Jewish then that is a fight worth fighting. And that’s why we’re in court.
The author, a rabbi, is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center (www.itim.org.il).
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