Earlier this month, Hadassah Braun Margolese wrote a blog here at The Torch describing her anguish about not being able to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. As a result of Hadassah’s struggle, MK Aliza Lavie proposed a Knesset bill to rectify this situation. Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, a leading activist in the area of mikveh reform, responds below to these series of events and offers a glimpse into the experiences of immersing women.
MK Aliza Lavie and ITIM have put forward a bill in the Knesset that will make it illegal for mikveh attendants to question women about their religious practice. Let me describe where this is coming from.
Last week we held a lecture at The Eden Center. Afterward someone mentioned the bill, and a few women instantly responded with stories from the last month — of attendants asking when and how many bedikot (internal checks to assure there is no bleeding) the woman did, and whether a woman had done a hefsek (internal exam which officially marks the end of bleeding) (the attendant claimed that she can’t say “Kasher” if the woman hasn’t done these because she will get Divine retribution for wrongly sanctioning the immersion); a woman was asked if her freckles are make up or permanent – and the attendant tried to rub them off; and another questioned about her choice of birth control and interrogated regarding whether she had taken out the NuvaRing or not. Unfortunately, among the 850 officially employed mikveh ladies in the country, not all are sensitive to how these things might offend, and where they overstep the woman’s personal authority. Many attendants feel that it is their responsibility, rather than a woman’s, to decide what is appropriate — and can refuse entry because of a woman’s personal status or the psak she chooses to follow.
From the discussion in the Knesset (which I attended), the bill is intended to prevent attendants from being able to turn someone away (it’s a public institution in Israel), and from asking questions like if/when she did a hefsek, her marital status, and more, which are insensitive or intrusive.
The proposed legislation is welcome, but unless it is accompanied by a deep educational process I fear it will be met with resistance from the mikveh attendants, who will likely see it as an attempt by a secular government to intrude in their holy work. Legislation cannot make people more sensitive; education can, and education can also help them to understand the underpinnings of this law. The mikveh attendants need to understand that the bill is not a threat nor an attack of their Avodat Kodesh (holy work), but rather an attempt to respect the privacy and dignity of thousands of women who come to the mikveh with different priorities, yet consider their immersion as vitally important in their lives.
A little background might be helpful. Most of the mikveh attendants are Haredi. They grew up in an educational system which devalues personal autonomy and places ultimate value on strict adherence to authority. Their own self-perception as well as their perception of their roles in the mikveh and vis-à-vis the women who enter are often dramatically different from those whom they are paid to service. Education can help them to be made aware of the feelings and sensitivities of the other side, whose concerns are so far from their own that they just don’t relate to these things as a problem. (I believe that it is the awareness of the complexity of this problem and respect for the difficult work attendants do which prompted MK Lavie and Itim to phrase the bill in a way that calls to task the rabbis who oversee the mikveh, and not the attendants themselves).
Education can also help to begin the process of transforming the concept of a mikveh attendant from a halakhic gatekeeper to someone who facilitates a woman’s experience. More than that, attendants have the rare opportunity to witness (and, as appropriate, extend a hand) to things that would otherwise go unnoticed – whether signs of abuse, a growth on a woman’s back, or fertility challenges and miscarriage.
An education program like this already exists and has been implemented in a number of locales for the mikveh attendants, with great success. The Eden Center has developed a course which has been extremely successful in extending that kind of sensitivity. Attendants learn skills of communication and become very aware of different needs, learning to accept women from across the religious spectrum. At the same time, we give the attendants general knowledge and tools for identifying abuse and domestic violence, postpartum depression, breast health and infertility, as well as issues of physical, emotional and sexual health, so they can be community resources. We also point out that while some women love being asked a checklist of items re: preparation, others just want to be left alone to do their own thing. And through the program, we have seen incredible change. When we explain the complexity of feelings that come from a range of women and different life situations, they begin to understand their piece in making all women feel comfortable and respected in this most precious institution.
We hope to bring this program to communities throughout Israel– and even to the Diaspora — because we see how effective it has been in helping women in need get sensitive assistance, and helping attendants understand their job in completely new ways.
The conversation about mikveh reform will continue at the 8th International JOFA Conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College. Sign up today!