Murky waters

Mikve pay dispute raises questions of celibacy, halacha and women's rights.

mikve 88 (photo credit: )
mikve 88
(photo credit: )
Rabbis have rejected an Orthodox feminist's call for women to stop going to the mikve (ritual bath) until state-employed mikve attendants get paid. According to Jewish law, a woman must immerse herself in a mikve after menstruation before she can have sexual relations with her husband. Abstaining from going to the mikve is tantamount to abstinence from sex. Attorney Batia Kahana-Dror, a leading member of Kolech, a feminist Orthodox organization, sent out a "no pay, no sex" message in an opinion piece on the organization's Web site this week calling on women to stop going to the mikve in protest against delays in paying salaries to hundreds of mikve attendants. "Let's drive them crazy, all those who wait restlessly for the night that their woman to go to the mikve. All those who make up the majority in the religious councils, the Treasury, the Religious Services Ministry and the Knesset, the rabbis and the leaders. Stop. No more sex. Let's face it, no one is going to die from it." However, rabbis and the mikve attendants said that it was forbidden by Jewish law for a married couple to refrain from sex as a means of protest. "It would put unbearable pressures on the family," said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva. "Obviously, delaying salaries is absolutely wrong and everything should be done to make sure mikve attendants get paid. But this is a very delicate situation." In Jewish law, marital sex is an obligation that the husband must provide to his wife. The unwillingness of either husband or wife over a prolonged period of time to have sexual relations can provide a justification for a rabbinic court to force the couple to get divorced. Aviner said that another reason he was opposed to Kahana-Dror's call for celibacy was because it was inappropriate and immodest for women to publicize the fact that they were not going to the mikve. A mikve attendant in Jerusalem who preferred to remain anonymous said she had not been paid for two months. Nevertheless, she said she opposed striking in protest. "We do sacred work and it cannot be interrupted," the attendant said. "There are women who come to the mikve who are not very religious. They come because it is convenient. Some even come against the wishes of their husbands. "If we were to strike some of these women would be with their husbands without going to the mikve. I can't have that on my conscience. "Besides, the rabbis prohibit it," she said. However, Kahana-Dror said that she "could not look the mikve attendant in the eye" the last time she visited the ritual bath. "It was heartbreaking to see her collecting donations along with the regular mikve admission fee. I felt that I had to do something," Kahana-Dror said. Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) did not return repeated telephone calls from The Jerusalem Post. However, Cohen has promised that the mikve attendants would receive their salaries before Pessah. According to Religious Services Ministry sources, there are at least 400 mikve attendants and pensioners in Jerusalem who have not been paid for two to three months. Unpaid mikve attendants and other religious council workers is a problem that has plagued state-funded religious services for several years. Cash-strapped municipalities regularly default on their payments to the religious councils, which receive 40 percent of their budgets from the Religious Services Ministry and 60% from the local government. As a result, mikve attendants, rabbis, kosher supervisors and clerks have suffered chronic salary payment delays. Kahana-Dror is hopeful that Cohen will stand behind his promise to pay salaries before Pessah. "But if attendants don't get paid, I'm not going to the mikve. And don't ask me what my husband thinks about that."