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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Israeli rabbinate bans intrusive questioning by mikveh staff

The Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry have issued new instructions that are intended to put an end to a recurrent problem at certain mivkehs (ritual baths) around the country: intrusive questioning by mikveh attendants of women who come there to immerse themselves.

In letter sent to mikveh attendants this week, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote that they can offer women “assistance and explanations” on matters of Jewish law, but if a woman refuses this assistance, “the attendant must not interrogate and examine her against her will and must enable her to immerse herself without any demands or interrogation (especially when this could cause the woman in question not to want to continue immersing herself next time.)” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau issued a similar letter, urging attendants “not to be hard on” women who use the mikveh.

The Religious Services Ministry plans to circulate similar, binding instructions to all public mikvehs.

The new instructions were drafted in response to numerous complaints by women that were forwarded by ITIM, an organization which helps people navigate the religious bureaucracy.

Jewish law requires women who have sexual relations to immerse themselves in the mikveh after their periods, but it also sets various requirements for how long they must wait after their periods end and what preparations they must make before immersing themselves, such as combing their hair and removing any bandages. 

The complaints said that mikveh attendants often asked intrusive and offensive personal questions on these issues – not as a matter of official policy, but rather because there was no official policy dictating rules of proper conduct for the attendants.

One particularly egregious complaint that recently reached the chief rabbis concerned a mikveh in Lod that posted a sign detailing all the preparations necessary and warning that a full-body inspection, “both visual and by touch,” must be performed “by both the immersing woman and the attendant” to ensure these requirements had been met.

The High Court of Justice has also weighed in on the mikveh issue. In May, responding to a petition by the Center for Women’s Justice, the court said that mikveh attendants are not allowed to ask women whether they are married or single or to bar single women from immersing themselves. Under Jewish law, a woman is forbidden to have sex if she hasn’t immersed herself after her period, so some attendants evidently thought keeping singles from immersing was a way to keep them from having premarital sex.

Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbinate’s new instructions have already sparked a mini-war among religious Knesset members over who gets credit for persuading the rabbis to issue them. MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who submitted a bill on the issue just last week, claimed that her bill was what prompted the rabbis’ letter, while Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi) claimed that he had personally reached an agreement with the chief rabbis over this issue. Both also said they had been working on the issue for months – a claim supported by ITIM in Lavie’s case and the Chief Rabbinate in Ben Dahan’s case.

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