Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has spoken out strongly against the High Court of Justice after legal pressure that forced the Religious Services Ministry to change its regulations to allow women to immerse in public mikvaot without the presence of a mikve attendant.
Speaking after his weekly Torah lesson on Saturday night, Yosef said that after a High Court petition had been issued on the matter, the court had requested from the rabbi that he provide a written position in Jewish law on the issue.
Yosef said he had written a letter providing numerous sources in Jewish law why a woman must be present when another woman immerses in the mikve to verify that the immersion was valid, and also pointed to various leniencies permitted by the Chief Rabbinate in public mikvaot.
The chief rabbi said however that “none of this helped” and that he had not even received a reply from the court to his letter.
“These judges are intervening on issues of Jewish law,” Yosef said.
“Were they appointed to be rabbis or judges? They should deal with things like if someone drives through a red light, but they’re getting involved in aspects of Jewish law, and it’s a shame that they’re doing this, it’s a shame.”
The petition was originally brought to the High Court by the The Right To Live Jewish religious services advisory group, on behalf of women who wanted to use public mikvaot for their monthly ritual immersion but did not want a mikve attendant present when they do so.
According to activists on this issue, some women feel vulnerable and uncomfortable when they are naked in front of a mikve attendant, while others wishing to immerse alone have in the past been victims of sexual abuse and found being naked in front of a stranger psychologically traumatic.
The traditional interpretation of Jewish law, and that adopted by the Chief Rabbinate, has been that someone else be present for a woman’s immersion to ensure that she was completely immersed, and that an immersion without someone to witness it might not be valid.
In June this year, the State Attorney’s Office warned the Chief Rabbinate that there were severe legal difficulties in conditioning immersion in mikvaot on the presence of an attendant, and instructed the Religious Services Ministry to instruct local religious councils, which operate municipal religious services, to allow women to immerse alone if they so wish.
The petitioners had claimed that the Chief Rabbinate’s policy infringed their right to privacy, their freedom of religious worship and their right to human autonomy.
Earlier this month, the ministry issued its new regulations on the matter in line with the state attorney’s requirements, despite the ongoing opposition of Yosef and the Chief Rabbinate to this policy.
Despite the new regulations, one of the central activist groups on the issue said that women have already complained that they have been denied the possibility of immersing without a mikve attendant.
“The decision of the High Court is not enough and we will not be satisfied by the publication of the new regulations,” said Roni Chazon-Weiss, head of the Immersion in Quiet organization.
“The declarations regarding freedom of immersion in mikvaot have to be borne out immediately on the ground, and there must be enforcement,” she said. She called on women who encountered such problems to file complaints.