Israel’s Supreme Court: Public ritual baths must accept non-Orthodox, too

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The Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh in Newton, Mass. Photo courtesy of Mayyim Hayyim

The Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh in Newton, Mass. Photo courtesy of Mayyim Hayyim

The Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh in Newton, Mass. Photo courtesy of Mayyim Hayyim

The Mayyim Hayyim Mikvah in Newton, Mass. Photo courtesy of Mayyim Hayyim

JERUSALEM (RNS) Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that public ritual baths must accept all prospective converts, including those undergoing conversion through the Reform and Conservative movements.

By tradition, converts to Judaism must immerse in a ritual bath, called a mikvah, at the conclusion of their conversion process. Until now, the Orthodox officials who administer all government-funded mikvahs have barred non-Orthodox converts, claiming their traditions do not conform to Jewish law and the people they convert are therefore not Jews.

In his Thursday (Feb. 11) ruling, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said barring certain converts amounts to discrimination.

“Once it established public mikvahs and put them at the service of the public — including for the process of conversion — the State cannot but be evenhanded in allowing their use,” Rubinstein said. “The State of Israel is free to supervise the use of its mikvahs, so long as it does so in an egalitarian manner.”

The case, including appeals, took 10 years to wend its way through the courts, said Orly Erez-Likhovski, director of the legal department at the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, which sued the state on behalf of the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements.

“We view this as another step toward equal treatment of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel and specifically a step toward full recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, Erez-Likhovkski said.

Yizhar Hess, CEO Of Israel’s Conservative/Masorti Movement, said the court decision “emanates from Jerusalem but will be heard in every corner of the Jewish world. This shall put an end to the humiliating situation today where Conservative and Reform Jews have had to quietly sneak into the mikvahs. This is another important step by the State of Israel in recognizing that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”

Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called the court decision “outrageous,” The Times of Israel reported.

“Reform Jews are making use of Jewish law for their needs when it is convenient and are undermining the Jewish identity of the State of Israel,” he said. “The court cannot on the one hand satisfy a small minority, and on the other gravely harm thousands of Jews interested in Jewish life according to halakhah (Jewish law) and in keeping the true Jewish identity of the state.”

On Monday Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker, said he plans to  introduce a bill that would override the court’s ruling. Ultra-Orthodox factions are an important part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu razor-thin government.   

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)