Chief rabbis turn the heat up on differences over mikve usage

A difference of opinion between the two rabbis over who should be appointed to the position of director of the Chief Rabbinate became public two weeks ago.

Chief rabbi David Lau (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Chief rabbi David Lau
Tensions between Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau over several matters became even more heated on Sunday, as they issued seemingly contradictory position statements on the contentious issue of mikve usage.
A difference of opinion between the two rabbis over who should be appointed to the position of director of the Chief Rabbinate became public two weeks ago, and tensions seem to be growing in the wake of that dispute.
On Sunday, Lau issued a statement clarifying his position in Jewish law over the use of mikvaot by women for their monthly ritual immersion.
In recent years, some women have campaigned for greater freedom when using mikvaot. Two years ago the regulations were relaxed to prevent mikve attendants from insisting on questioning women seeking to immerse or on unwanted physical inspections.
Some campaigners insist, however, on the right to immerse without the presence of a mikve attendant at all, something that the Religious Services Ministry does not permit.
In his statement on Sunday, Lau said the privacy of a woman seeking immersion should be respected, but said that Jewish law requires that a mikve attendant must be present in order to check that the immersion was valid In a new and relatively lenient ruling however, the chief rabbi said that a woman may wear a loose fitting gown to immerse in, as used by female converts when immersing in the presence of witnesses.
This solution has not been approved by the Religious Services Ministry, which formally sets the rules and regulations for mikve usage.
Shortly after Lau’s statement was issued, haredi journalist Yishai Cohen of the Kikar Shabbat website tweeted a halachic statement by Yosef from October in which he said that, in certain cases, if a woman wishes not to immerse in the presence of a mikve attendant due to personal privacy, she can ask for a relative to accompany her instead.
This is a more lenient position than Lau’s, and something that campaign groups have demanded for some time.
The leaking of a hitherto unseen halachic statement by Yosef so soon after Lau issued his position was likely a result of the feud between the two rabbis over the Chief Rabbinate director position and a broader political struggle.
The haredi political leadership was angered after Lau came out strongly against the Western Wall agreement to create a pluralist prayer space at the holy site and called on the prime minister to change the plan.
The agreement put haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism in a quandary, since they are totally opposed to any form of recognition of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, but at the same time did not want to create pressure on themselves to leave the government over principled protest to the deal.
Lau’s public opposition, along with growing haredi media protest, however, put great pressure on Shas and UTJ, who subsequently threatened to topple the government over the issue.
According to sources in the Chief Rabbinate, Yosef did not want to take a public position against the deal because of pressure from Shas.
Despite the statements of both Lau and Yosef regarding mikve usage, no changes to the ministry regulations will be made in the near future.
Roni Chazon-Weiss, the head of the Immersion in Quiet organization, which helps women who wish to immerse alone, said that both statements nevertheless showed that the campaign for the autonomy of women in mikvaot was increasingly influential.
“The obsession of the male rabbinical system [on this issue] does not respect those who are obligated in the commandment, the community of women, and does damage to modesty itself,” said Chazon-Weiss.
“The task of a mikve attendant was and is to help a women immerse in accordance with her requests, and we will continue to demand this, something which is apparent from the statements of the chief rabbis.
“This is another step toward autonomy for women to immerse in accordance with their customs and in their own way and we will continue to work toward full autonomy.”
The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah lobbying group, which has been part of the campaign for more relaxed mikve regulations, welcomed the statements of both rabbis, adding however that “it is a shame that politicians are trying to take advantage of the dispute on the backs of women who immerse in the mikvaot.”