In the past few years, the American Jewish establishment has spoken out against the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s refusal — sometimes retroactive — to recognize conversions and marriages performed by American rabbis, one of whom, most notably, oversaw the conversion of Ivanka Trump. For many American Jews, the chief rabbinate was, once again, being unnecessarily strict and inconsistent in its application of the law.
However, in the case of mikvehs, or ritual baths, it is the American Orthodox community that lags behind Israel.
In October 2016, Itim, the same Israeli organization that brought the conversion issue to the fore, won its case against the chief rabbinate over whether women could immerse alone in a mikveh. Until then, women were required to immerse naked before mikveh attendants — “mikveh ladies” — who could impose their own customs and idiosyncrasies on users and prevent them from immersing if they did not abide by them.
This issue is crucial for observant women, who immerse themselves in order to become ritually pure — and resume sexual activity — after menstruation or childbirth.
The greatest sticking point has been whether Halacha, Jewish law, allows women to immerse without an attendant’s supervision. Despite the pressure by the Israeli Ministry of Religious Services for women to use an attendant, its guidelines acknowledge that women, not the attendants, are the ones who determine whether their immersion is “kosher,” and therefore the woman are permitted to dunk alone. (That hasn’t stopped attendants from, most recently, trying to coerce women into signing liability waivers.)
But in English-language coverage of the Israeli mikveh controversy, the media failed to mention the current status quo of immersion practices in the United States, potentially leaving readers to assume that, like conversion, American Orthodox communities are more “open-minded.”
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Women, categorically, are not permitted to immerse by themselves.
Instead, they are told repeatedly that Jewish law demands that an attendant watch over them.
Testing this policy, I called several mikvehs in mainstream observant communities in New York City and asked if I could immerse by myself. In the first instance, the woman answering the phone responded in the negative, to no avail of my legal and personal objections. In the second instance I was told to contact the mikveh’s rabbi, who held a prominent position in the Syrian Jewish community. He insisted that an attendant was halachically required, despite my pointing out that the chief rabbinate had acknowledged otherwise and that the responsibility of a proper immersion ultimately fell on me, not the attendant. In the third instance, I called a mikveh located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that is well regarded for being warm and accommodating. They told me, “Have your rabbi call us and tell us it’s okay.”
Everyone — rabbis, attendants and women — agrees that it’s a “woman’s” obligation. Indeed, immersion after menstruation is the only Jewish law that women are uniquely required to practice. Why, then, are women not entrusted with the responsibility of practicing it as they see fit, according to Jewish law? Why is an arbitrary rabbi’s permission necessary for something that is otherwise permitted to do in far more capacious circumstances than rabbis or attendants seem willing to admit?
Yes, the Shulchan Aruch, a 16th-century compendium of laws and customs, mentions a female bystander, whose role is to check that a woman’s hair is fully submerged underwater. But in that same section, the text also mentions that in the absence of said bystander, a woman can simply tie back her hair. Notably, she is also permitted to wear clothing while immersing, and even if she immerses without intent, it’s still “kosher” for the purposes of resuming sexual relations with her spouse.
Apart from the Shulchan Aruch, which relies on the writings of the 13th- to 14th-century scholar Asher ben Yehiel (the Rosh), who in turn relies on the 12th-century scholar Abraham ben David (Rabad), there don’t seem to be any other sources that mention an attendant, let alone require one.
Perhaps the custom of having an attendant arose from a fear that women were secretly not immersing and needed policing. Even if that were the case then, however, men today cannot know with full certainty whether their spouses have gone to a mikveh, just as there is no way for servers at “dairy” restaurants to know whether their customers have recently eaten meat.
It might be tempting to gauge the status of women in Orthodoxy by their increasing public participation — as spiritual advisers, prayer leaders and legal authorities in their own right. But if we measure their status by the responsibilities they’ve been halachically assigned to keep, then women today might be less trusted in upholding Jewish law than their ancestors who lived 1,000 years ago.
Shayna Zamkanei holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. She is currently working on a book about the displacement of Jews from Arab countries.