Why Israel’s Mikveh Bill Is About More Than How Orthodox Women Immerse

This has been a tough week for women in Israel. While the Knesset was debating how much power the rabbinate should have over women immersing in the ritual bath, or mikveh, Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs was being arrested at the Western Wall for carrying a Torah.

All this reminds us that Israel is the only Western country where Jewish women cannot get married without proving that they dunked naked in front of a stranger, non-Orthodox Jews cannot legally get married, non-Orthodox converts are not legally considered Jews, and a Jewish woman can get arrested for wearing a tallit or holding a Torah scroll.

Welcome to Israel 2016, the scary version.

On the upside, all of this provides a real, powerful illustration of why Israel desperately needs a separation of religion and state. The idea that all-male, ultra-orthodox decisors of religion should have legal means to control the movements and religious expressions of an entire nation is medieval and frightening in its implications.

The tension over women and religion emerged with particular force at this week’s Knesset hearing to discuss Knesset member Moshe Gafni’s “mivkeh bill,” which would give the rabbinate absolute authority in determining who, how, and why people are allowed to use state mikvehs.

The bill is an attempt by religious politicos to co-opt power from non-religious arms of government, completely evading and neutralizing the Supreme Court, which ruled in February that Reform and Conservative converts must be allowed to use state mikvehs, and in 2014 that attendants may not interrogate women using the mikveh.

Signs that the religious ministry was having trouble adhering to the Supreme Court came earlier this year, when the police were called to arrest a woman who had been asking to immerse alone.

Yes, that really happened — adding to the list that Israel is the only country where a Jewish woman might be arrested for using the mikveh. The Knesset meeting erupted with objections of women – such as religious feminist members Rachel Azaria and Aliza Lavie — as well as those promoting religious tolerance and pluralism in Israel. But the bill has not been shelved, yet.

One of the most outrageous and perhaps surprising moments in the meeting came when Gafni told the committee: “This doesn’t have anything to do with women.” Considering that married religious women (and not men) are expected to use the mikveh monthly, and that an estimated 80% of converts are women, his comment was preposterous.

But it revealed his real target here: Reform and Conservative Jews. The mikveh bill is not so much aimed at limited the way Orthodox women use the mikveh as it is the way Reform and Conservative rabbis use the mikveh to convert people.

Of course, the fact that he doesn’t consider the women converts of Reform and Conservative Jews to be women would be funny if it weren’t so reflective of the Jewish condition. In the battle over who gets to determine who is Jewish, there is a perception that is a discussion among men alone — men talking to men about genderless and personless “converts,” having nothing to do with women. The patriarchal notion that Jewish leadership and authority are a men’s thing is far from dead.

One take-away from this is that there is a cross-denominational invisibility of Jewish women that desperately needs to be repaired.

Another take-away is that denominational divides were invented by men and are maintained by men, eager to be gatekeepers of entry into the Jewish people, in a Kafka-esque position as holder of The Law. Orthodox and non-Orthodox feminists should be seeking ways to join forces in opposition to patriarchy rather than retreating into corners. Even if Gafni bows to Orthodox feminists with a concession that women can immerse alone, that is not satisfactory enough. Orthodox women need to stay in the battle on behalf of all the other women who are still in Gafni’s crosshairs. This is about more than women being “allowed” to immerse alone. This is about ensuring that the government stay out of women’s bodily experiences, and about separating religion and state altogether.

The third take-away, given the confluence with events at the Western Wall, is that Israel has reached a critical moment in the tension between women and religion in Israel. Women’s basic rights are being challenged on so many fronts in Israel — in the army, in public spaces, in work, in economics. Religious demands for women’s invisibility and passivity continue to be met with acquiescence — whether by the police in the Old City of Jerusalem, or by coalition partners seeking to make a deal. If the women of Israel don’t find a powerful and effective way to fight back, the very nature of Israel as a democracy will be at risk, if it isn’t already.

Women have lots of tools at our disposal. We have our voices, our minds, and our bodies — as well as our pocketbooks and our votes. Women in Israel need to unite, to drop denominational and political differences, and to launch a widespread campaign for change. I have been proposing a “Lysistrata” solution where women stop going to the mikveh, but that is only one of several strong possibilities. There are many ways for us to have an influence, and we need to use them all. We need to take back the mikveh, take back the streets, take back Judaism, and take back democracy. As Hillel said, if not now, when? Soon it may be too late.

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