Regev Responds

Chapter II

Israel's ritual bath controversy

Unsurprisingly, though extremely disappointingly, MK Gafni's partners in the Coalition Government have all bowed to his demands, and are supporting his legislative initiative to undo the landmark Supreme Court ruling on mikva'ot.

A mikva, a bath for Jewish ritual immersionsA mikva, a bath for Jewish ritual immersions
    "Pluralism is a part of my religion. Judaism and pluralism is like the ABC's. As a human rights activist, I am your partner and support you. This week, I went home with tears in my eyes after seeing people self-righteously exit the room in the name of Jewish faith when other Jews who think differently than they do expressed their views."
    -Yehuda Glick, Likud MK


In February, I wrote [link] that "The haredi politicians are already gearing up to pass counter-legislation that will explicitly subject the function of the mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate... But the court... stated that the law 'cannot make kosher' the exclusion of non-Orthodox converts from public mikva’ot, because 'the rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy...'"

Here's the good news, following this week's Knesset Internal Affairs Committee deliberations:

  1. Whereas Israel's political functionaries quickly surrendered to MK Gafni's demands, the new Attorney General made it known that he considers the proposed legislation discriminatory, and would find it difficult to defend when (inevitably) challenged again in court.
  2. Also, a strong objection was voiced by Orthodox women who felt the bill's heavy handed, restrictive policies governing the mikva'ot would violate their rights, requiring extremist, rigid conduct. This was unacceptable to many Orthodox women, including unmarried Orthodox women who want to immerse themselves ritually, but are often rejected by mikva attendants.

The parties therefore had to return to the drawing board (not so much because the non-Haredi politicians, such as HaBayit HaYehudi and Rahel Azaria of Kulanu were concerned about the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, but because they were concerned about legislation that would strengthen the hand of the Chief Rabbinate, jeopardizing the ability of Orthodox modern women to use the mikva'ot as they see fit). They returned with an agreed upon and much watered down legislative initiative, which supposedly ensures Orthodox women of their rights, but not so the non-Orthodox converts.

While the issue at hand is the use of Israel's public ritual baths, what is at stake is much greater. The erosive pressure of the ultra-Orthodox politicians (who have no respect whatsoever for either the rule of law or the civil judiciary) was met with little resistance, if not outright surrender by the Government.

A significant point was made by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, a Zionist Orthodox former IDF Major General, who opposed the bill from a religious perspective. MK Stern pointed out the obvious (which the secular MKs were not really interested in) - that mikva'ot are not tainted in any way if they are used by non-Orthodox Jews. It was apparent that the religious integrity of the mikva'ot had nothing to do with MK Gafni's proposal - it was only about power and exclusion.

"How can we get this matter on the agenda? I am utterly dismayed by this... This is tremendous blasphemy - when those who wear yarmulkes exit just when Jews with different ideas speak their minds." MK Yehuda Glick, Likud

In fact, Likud MK Yehuda Glick (who very recently joined the Knesset), a known Zionist Orthodox activist for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and considered an extremist by his opponents, forcefully admonished the ultra-Orthodox politicians for leaving the room whenever spokespeople for the non-Orthodox movements presented their views. As a proponent of religious pluralism, MK Glick said, "How can we get this matter on the agenda? I am utterly dismayed by this... This is tremendous blasphemy - when those who wear yarmulkes exit just when Jews with different ideas speak their minds." Hiddush is certain that the newly instated MK will continue to provide many more refreshing perspectives!

The controversy generated very vocal dismay from the leadership of the non-Orthodox world movements (which had labored on this matter for ten years before the Supreme Court finally made its historic ruling), leading to yet another plot twist:

Just as in the case of the Western Wall compromise, the Jewish Agency was brought in to save the day. Behind the scenes, it was worked out with Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky that the Agency would undertake to build 3-4 mikva'ot to be operated for the non-Orthodox movements. Not all the details were revealed, such as where the money is going to come from, who's going to pay for construction and maintenance, etc., but the message was clear - the Government had found a way to eat its cake and have it too.

After the agreement with the Jewish Agency was worked out, it became even further abundantly clear that MK Gafni and his ultra-Orthodox colleagues were more interested in delegitimizing the non-Orthodox movements than regulating the usage of Israel's public mikva'ot. Their top priority was preventing any measure of governmental recognition for the Movements. While MK Gafni was aware of the behind-the-scenes agreement, and agreed to it, he publicly declared his opposition to the agreement, saying that he wasn't accepting any compromise, but had no sway over the Jewish Agency, which operates outside of the government.

With the agreement, and with the threat to Orthodox women's rights removed, the majority of the committee (including MK Gafni) approved the revised bill for an official first Knesset reading. However, before the committee session ended, the Attorney General's representative once again made clear that the implementation of this legislation would be conditional upon functioning alternative ritual baths being available for non-Orthodox converts, and that regardless of any other consideration, it should be understood that the religious councils (which operate the mikva'ot) are public bodies, subject to the principles of administrative and constitutional law.

As a participant in these Knesset Internal Affairs Committee's deliberations, I was pained at MK Gafni's harsh outbursts against the attorney general and his representative (Gafni even stormed out of the room after lashing out at the AG representative!). Rather than defend the civil servant from undue assault, the committee chair instead asserted that the Knesset makes the laws, and does not concern itself with the possibility that the courts may see fit to challenge them. Amazingly, he dismissed the Attorney General's guidance as "private opinion."

Clearly, Chapter II is not the end of this saga so stay tuned for the next installment, which will be coming soon.

Take Action!