Why Israel Funding Non-Orthodox Mikvehs Is a Step Forward — and Backward

The Israeli government – currently in the midst of various financial crises like a doctors’ strike and a revolt by municipalities protesting major cuts to education – has miraculously found 10 million NIS for something that until now has never really existed. That is: non-Orthodox mikvehs.

The new initiative to create non-Orthodox ritual baths is the result of a compromise of sorts in which ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni, who heads the Knesset Finance Committee, pushed through his “Mikveh Law” that gives municipalities the power to ban non-Orthodox Jews from immersing in state-funded mikvehs for their own personal use.

The bill is a disaster, another act of zealot control over who gets to convert to Judaism and over who gets to decide who the gatekeepers of the Jewish people are – only this time the debate takes place over the uncovered bodies of the most vulnerable members of the tribe at their most delicate, intimate moment.

The idea that the state – any state – should be passing bills about any of this is outrageous, a violation of basic rights to privacy and the privacy of spiritual practice, and a huge stain on the State of Israel.

This new jolt of funding for this new thing called non-Orthodox mikvehs, which comes from the Prime Minister’s Office for Diaspora Affairs is meant to be a salve for Jews of the world. After all, it seems to be acknowledging the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversion. And it is real money for real facilities, which is always nice. But this actually might have the opposite effect. It is a way of marking and denoting non-Orthodox Jews as officially “other”.

There is currently one mikveh in Israel that is considered by the state to be “not Orthodox” – that is, the mikveh in Hannaton run by Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David. Although she has a doctorate from Bar Ilan University on the Jewish law, or halakha, of mikveh practice and has Orthodox ordination as a rabbi, these credentials are not recognized by the state as giving her authority to run a mikveh.

In fact, they place her as outside the Orthodox box, therefore rendering the mikveh she manages un-Orthodox. Indeed, Ner David’s approach to mikveh is beautifully open, pluralistic and engaging. Anyone who wants or needs to use the mikveh may do so, including men, people experiencing private moments of transition, non-Orthodox converts, and more.

So even though the mikveh itself is perfectly kosher – it was built by the state many years ago according to Jewish law and state rabbis occasionally pop in to check on its kosherness – the state nevertheless marks it as non-Orthodox (and subsequently unfunded) by virtue of the fact that it is open to non-Orthodox Jews and pretty much anyone else who finds comfort in this ritual.

This whole thing is a shame.

It is the Judaism with the “Do not come in” sign at the front, instead of a Judaism that embraces people, God and tradition.

Moreover, the circular reasoning that it invokes – a mikveh becomes non-Orthodox because non-Orthodox Jews use it, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the mikveh – represents Judaism as a function of paranoia rather than as an expression of a desire to connect with God.

This system, represented in this “us” and “them” approach to mikveh, creates its own hierarchies of “in” and “out” based exclusively on the idea that Orthodox people are “in” and anyone else is “out”.

A mikveh is a mikveh is a mikveh. Mikvehs used by non-Orthodox Jews are still mikvehs like any other.

It seems, though, that by designating these new mikvehs as “non-Orthodox”, the state is finding an easy way to put that scarlet letter “Not Orthodox” on all users of these mikveh, and “Not Jewish” on all converts who use it.

This has nothing to do with halakha – after all, a kosher mikveh has no denomination on it – and everything with an ultra-Orthodox social order. It almost feels like separate water fountains of the segregated south. Today it is segregated mikvehs – what’s next?

“The state rabbinate denies that we are a mikveh but then uses us when it is convenient for them,” she lamented.

About this new funding initiative, she said, “It is definitely an accomplishment that the government is funding a place where non-Orthodox Jews can convert. On the other hand, there is no reason why we can’t share resources and share space. It shows a lack of tolerance, and failure to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-Orthodox converts. It perpetuates a holier-than-thou attitude.”

Thinking it through more, Ner David added, “Maybe these new mikvehs, since they are open to everyone, will be places that are totally inclusive. Maybe they will adopt the model that I use at Hannaton, where anyone can immerse. An ideal mikveh should be open to everyone, and people using it doesn’t do anything to the kashruth of the mikveh. After all, at the original mikveh, the ocean, there is nobody telling people who can go inside.”

That scenario is lovely, but may be a moot point: Despite all this, Gafni has vowed to fight the building of the new mikvehs – despite the compromises reached by his committee.

Ultimately, this move represents both a move forward and a move backward. Yes, it is nice that non-Orthodox Jews will be able to immerse without being interrogated about their practices and identities. But at the same time, that should not be happening to begin with. Everyone who wants to use a mikveh should be able to use one freely.

For another perspective on the issue read:

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a Jewish feminist educator, consultant and award-winning author — a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award. She is the founding director of The Center for Jewish Feminism and blogs at www.jewfem.com

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Why Israel Funding Non-Orthodox Mikvehs Is a Step Forward — and Backward

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