The waters of rebellion

A group of religious women have appealed to the High Court of Justice to recognize their right to immerse in a mikve without the presence of an attendant.

Roni Hazon-Weiss. (photo credit: NOAM FINER)
Roni Hazon-Weiss.
(photo credit: NOAM FINER)
They are both observant and feminists, and they feel they cannot continue to accept what they view as an offense – or at least, as a form of interference in their religious experience.
“They” are a group of religious women from various parts of the city who, along with the Itim organization, have appealed to the High Court of Justice to recognize their right to immerse in a mikve without the presence of an attendant.
It began with a number of young women who compared negative experiences at a ritual bath in the Baka neighborhood. Then came remarks about the mikve attendants, who insisted on being present while the women immersed themselves, or requested that the women observe different traditions than their own in order to be seen as fulfilling the mitzva.
“It reached a point when we became a larger group of women, who all felt they just couldn’t continue that way,” explains the group’s unofficial leader, Roni Hazon- Weiss, who is also director of the Yerushalmim movement.
The women decided to launch the “Let Us Immerse in Peace” campaign, and two weeks ago, the group submitted a petition to the High Court against the Chief Rabbinate, which administers the mikve attendants.
One of the protest’s central points is the objection to immersing in the presence of a total stranger – the attendant – who takes control of the women.
“These women come of their own free will to perform a mitzva,” says Hazon-Weiss. “Why should they have a supervisor check up on them in such an intimate place and moment?” Another issue is the method of immersion, and what precedes and follows it – such as what women are allowed to keep on or must take off before immersion, and how to recite the blessing during the act.
The claimants argue that a religious woman who chooses to come to the ritual bath shouldn’t have to act according to rules set by the Chief Rabbinate, but should be empowered to perform that mitzva according to her own traditions from home, family and culture.
“It is the most intimate mitzva for women, yet it is totally in the hands of men who decide upon us and our bodies,” says Hazon-Weiss, adding that there are many cases of women who have decided to stop going to the mikve altogether, even though it is a crucial commandment.
There are rabbis who support the move, such as city councilman and Orthodox rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who says that there is no halachic obligation to immerse in the presence of a bath attendant. However, the city’s chief rabbis have refused to change their policy.
Of course, not all women agree with Hazon-Weiss’s group. A passionate debate that arose on social media two weeks ago revealed that religious women from Mizrahi backgrounds tend to see the situation differently.
“We do not feel we are at war with the tradition of immersing, we do not see it as an attempt by men to diminish our freedom,” a woman named Sagit posted on her Facebook wall. “We traditional and religious Mizrahi women love to go to the ritual bath, we enjoy the whole situation. Therefore, there is no sense of animosity or struggle in facing a men’s world.”
But for Hazon-Weiss and her friends, the situation has become unbearable.
“We don’t need the bath attendants at all, certainly not in a regular and compulsory way,” they maintain. “We can ask for their help if needed, but we don’t need them to check on us how we perform the mitzva. The only thing the Chief Rabbinate has to do is to provide us with adequate and clean ritual baths, and leave the rest to us.”