The High Court of Justice last week required Minister of Religious Services Yakov Margi and Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger to explain within 45 days why women are not allowed to immerse in the ritual bath without being asked personal questions beforehand.
The demand was made by Justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Esther Hayut and Uri Shoham, following a High Court discussion of a petition filed by religious women's forum Kolech, the Center for Women's Justice and two unmarried women, requiring that single women, widows and divorcees be allowed to immerse in the mikveh without any restrictions.
The rabbinical institution opposes the move, as some view the immersion of single women as authorization to have sex out of wedlock.
The Chief Rabbinate and Religious Services Ministry's representative, Attorney Hani Ofek, tried to convince the judges that ritual baths were legally subject to the authority of religious councils, which determined procedure in accordance with Jewish Law.
The petitioners' representative, Attorney Susan Weiss, argued that this was a case of forbidden discrimination on personal grounds of marital status.
"Our country belongs to all Jews who want to immerse before their marriage," she said. "The mikveh belongs to those who want to visit the Temple Mount as well, to the woman who wants to be purified."
Immersion for all
In the petition, the High Court was asked to cancel the instruction preventing unmarried women from visiting ritual baths, as well as to publish a statement clarifying that the minister and rabbi's instruction on the matter was just a halachic ruling for public information, but should not be used to prevent single women, widows and divorcees from immersing in the mikveh if they wished to do so.
The petition was filed after a female soldier approached the Center for Women's Justice in April 2010, following several failed attempts to immerse in her local mikveh because she was not married.
The petition noted that the soldier viewed the act of immersion as part of her religious faith and spiritual work, and that the bath attendants explained that they could not let her immerse due to orders issued by the religious council.
Due to the refusal, the petition stated, the soldier was forced to lie about her marital status or travel to the sea or springs in order to immerse.
Another case mentioned in the petition is of a new immigrant who approached the Center for Women's Justice after seeking to escort her host to the mikveh on Yom Kippur Eve in September 2009.
Upon her arrival, the bath attendant refused to let her immerse in the ritual bath because she was single, describing such an act as blasphemy, heresy and hypocrisy.
The petition was filed along with a letter written by Rabbi Metzger, in which he stresses that an unmarried woman – whether single, widowed or divorced – must not be allowed to immerse in the mikveh.