Ripples in the Ritual Pool, Mikve in Israel
The mikve, among the more private of Jewish rituals, is being thrust into the public sphere in Israel. With the help of nonprofit and advocacy groups, women are using mikve as a springboard for greater empowerment, taking charge of their spirituality within the context of Jewish law.
At the same time, mikve has joined marriage and kashrut on the frontlines of the fight to wrest control from a restrictive rabbinate, even as coalition politics allow the rabbinate, which regulates many lifecycle and religious issues in the country, a greater role in determining Israeli life.
Mikve is a ritual pool used to fulfill the halakhic injunction that a woman immerse after the end of her menstrual period and before resuming relations with her husband. According to the Eden Center in Jerusalem, a nonprofit education organization that focuses on the mikve, 30,000 women visit the city’s mikves each month, with an estimated 750,000 women using them nationwide. Community mikves are run and funded by municipal religious councils, an arm of the city council that provides religious services under the auspices of the local rabbinate, the religious services ministry and the chief rabbinate.
Israeli mikves attract a wide range of visitors, from Orthodox regulars to traditional Sephardic women who see immersion as a way of connecting to God in times of need. Many secular women use the mikve once in their lifetime, as brides who immerse in the days before their wedding, while others come to it for a sense of support. “I started going to the mikve a few years ago when my first son went into the army,” says Yael Mizrachi, a secular Jerusalemite in her early forties. “I have friends who have done the same.”
One haredi woman, who asked that her name not be used, says, “I want to dunk and be out as quickly as possible. It is important because it allows me to have relations with my husband.”
At the center of the mikve experience is the mikve attendant, balanit in Hebrew. An attendant’s job is to assist visitors and supervise and witness immersions in the ritual pool, in accordance with Jewish law. Balaniyot are hired by the municipal religious council and their interactions with mikve-goers are a reflection of the religious makeup of the council and the local rabbinate. In Jerusalem, for example, where the religious council is largely ultra-Orthodox, balaniyot may ask personal questions and require marriage documentation.
Women do not want to be policed, says Keren Hadad-Taub, cofounder of Advot (Hebrew for ripples), a mikve advocacy group. “Some balaniyot are always running to the rabbis, asking them questions and imposing customs not in line with the woman’s family or community tradition.” Advot also lobbies for increased spending on mikve repairs and fights for greater representation of women on local religious councils.
“There are single women having sexual relations who want to use the mikve but are not allowed to do so by mikve supervisors,” adds Hadad-Taub. “There are brides who are told they cannot use the mikve because they were not being married through the Orthodox rabbinate.”
The religious council can be a mediating force between the community and the rabbinate. “I bring women’s complaints regarding mikve to the council’s attention, and when it involves halakhic issues, we go to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat,” says Elisheva Stollman, 41, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan who has served on the religious council of Efrat for nine years.
In Herzliya, where the municipality includes both religious and nonreligious communities, the situation can be complex. “Around 10 years ago, the chief rabbi of the city asked me to join the council to help make the mikve more appealing,” says Malka Enker, 78, a retired professor of educational psychology. “I found that when there was disagreement with the rabbi, if we approached him in a nonconfrontational manner, we were able to convince him of our approach. Through respectful discussion, I brought in two other women to the council.”
Enker attributes this tolerant attitude to Yehiel Vasdi, head of Herzliya’s religious council. “There is a symbiosis between the rabbinate, the council and the ministry of religion,” she explains. “The council translates the rabbinic directives into practice; we bring the residents’ complaints to the chief rabbinate, and the rabbinate must also heed the Supreme Court.”
“There are many different streams in Judaism. I believe in bridging them,” says Vasdi, a high-tech professional.
When this kind of tolerance does not exist, it results in cases brought before the Supreme Court. In 2011, the Center for Women’s Justice and Kolech, an Orthodox feminist organization, brought a petition to the court against the religion ministry on behalf of two unmarried petitioners prevented from using the mikve. Attorney Susan Weiss, head of the center, successfully argued that municipal mikves are government agencies and have no right to infringe on a woman’s privacy. The court ruled that public mikves could not bar single women or ask about marital status. The chief rabbinate, while upholding the position that single women are prohibited from using the mikve, issueda directive to the religious councils that “no woman who comes to use the ritual bath should be asked any questions regarding her personal status and that the use of the ritual bath must not be conditional on that status.”
In 2013, ITIM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, petitioned the chief rabbinate to regulate the role of mikve attendants, citing numerous complaints it received regarding balaniyot who question visitors’ religious affiliations and personal customs. The rabbinate issued a directive stating that attendants cannot ask personal questions or compel mikve-goers to follow a custom. “Married women should be able to fulfill the halakhic injunction according to their own interpretation and custom,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, director and founder of ITIM.
Despite these victories, women still report being denied access to the mikve. “I wanted to go to the mikve because I had a religious partner for whom it was important,” says Tzaphira Stern of Jerusalem, 39, a secular divorcée. “I was already standing with just a towel around me in the mikve in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, and the balanit asked, ‘Are you married?’ When I told her that I wasn’t, she wouldn’t allow me to go in.”
Stern insisted that the balanit was not permitted to ask such questions, and another, more senior, balanit came to see her. “She was terribly humiliating. She reacted as if it was blasphemy for me to enter the mikve and called the rabbi in charge of mikvaot in the area. He ruled that I could absolutely not use it. There I was, standing, vulnerable, a towel around me, while they related to me as if I was a whore, an outcast. I started to cry and left.”
Last summer, itim filed a petition with the Supreme Court against the chief rabbinate on behalf of 13 married Orthodox women demanding that mikve visitors be allowed more autonomy and be able to immerse without a balanit present. A hearing will take place in the spring.
Farber sees reimagining mikve as part of his agenda to “make sure that the religious establishment doesn’t extend its power to prevent people from living a Jewish life as they see fit.”
For Weiss, mikve is both a civil rights issue and part of the struggle to separate religion and government. The only Israeli law that gives the rabbinate a monopoly in religious issues pertains to marriage and divorce, she explains. But a lot of fuzzy language has given control over mikve and kashrut to the Orthodox rabbinate.
The state, or institutions supported by the state through taxpayers’ money, cannot tell a person how to be Jewish. “It cannot prohibit an unmarried woman or someone marrying outside the Orthodox realm to use the mikve,” Weiss declares.
Naomi Marmon-Grumet, 43, founder and director of the Eden Center in Jerusalem, is looking at the larger picture. “Many groups trying to improve the mikve experience see the rabbinate’s stranglehold as the main problem and take an adversarial position in order to bring change,” she says. “We have decided to work from within to improve the situation.”
One of the center’s goals is to educate balaniyot, not only in the laws of the mikve but also in how to be sensitive to mikve-goers. “Balaniyot come to realize that the halakhic intricacies are important, but perhaps not the main service the mikve woman can offer,” says Marmon-Grumet.
The center has trained 140 mikve attendants from Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Gush Etzion and Holon. The course for attendants “created a sense of professionalism,” says Chaya Zussman, a balanit in her fifties who works in a mikve in Gush Etzion. “The mikve reflects the fact that women have their own unique way of expressing themselves in Jewish life. And the balanit must accept and validate these women.”
“The very mikve woman who can be intrusive, can also be a source of support,” notes Marmon-Grumet. “But she must be given the tools to do so. They must learn to ask, ‘How would you like me to help?’ The balanit can learn to watch for signs of depression or sexual problems, infertility and abuse. She is taught to refer the women to professionals, psychologists, sex therapists, a women’s crisis center, as the need might demand.”
These were the insights that inspired the founding of the Eden Center in 2012, says Marmon-Grumet. While working on a doctorate in sociology at Bar-Ilan, she interviewed a woman with fertility problems who related that the only person to whom she had confided her struggles was a mikve attendant.
“The balanit sees a woman at the most intimate of junctures,” explains Marmon-Grumet. “One told me about a woman who seemed depressed, always came at the last moment and tarried. This woman was married to an important rabbi in their community and had 10 children. She confided that her husband is abusive. ‘There’s no one in the community who would believe me, so I don’t say anything,’ she confessed to the balanit.”
Marmon-Grumet believes that the mikve should be a place where women’s needs are discussed, where support groups for those who have infertility issues or had miscarriages can take place. The center’s current offerings include courses on intimacy and Jewish law and birth control. Marmon-Grumet says she is hoping to expand the center into a mikve and a women’s center and a model for the entire country. “There is no other organization,” she says, “that seeks to integrate women’s health and well-
being into the mikve experience in order to reach out to women from the entire spectrum of the country.”
And reaching out to all kinds of women, giving them the freedom to see mikve as a welcoming place where they “build their experience in their own way,” says Advot’s Keren Hadad- Taub, is a goal that all those working for change in the mikve experience can certainly get behind.