By Nechama Goldman Barash
I am delighted that finally, across Israel, women will be empowered to choose – in a halachically acceptable way – the option of having or not having a mikveh attendant supervise their immersion. After listening to the voices of women who dreaded the mikveh because of the presence of another women in the room (no matter how wonderful and unobtrusive), in our mikveh, we have allowed women to choose for the last year. I cannot overemphasize what a difference this has made for some women. It has turned the mikveh experience from something traumatic and suffocating to something positive and uplifting. And at least by us, most women actually (to my surprise) choose the presence of the attendant.
Let me explain: I have been working as an attendant (balanit) in the Elazar mikveh for more than 15 years. We have a very pleasant mikveh, which tries to show respect for the women who come and we try to make it as positive an experience as possible. Several years ago, I began to hear from women who absolutely detested the presence of another woman in the room with them. While it was initially difficult to understand why they needed this space, the staff looked for a way to make them feel comfortable and understood. We found what we felt was a plausible solution – that the woman go into the water by herself, and only afterward would the balanit enter the mikveh room. When the immersion was finished, the balanit would leave immediately so the women could have a few minutes by herself and exit privately.
Over time I found that the voices of women wanting to immerse alone became more strident. One of the brides I taught wrote to me that if a solution was not found, she would give up sexual intimacy rather than go to a mikveh with the attendant in the room. Another bride found the concept of a balanit so traumatic that she declared after the first time that she was never going back again. I invited her to come to Elazar and allowed her to go alone. She did so because going to the mikveh alarmed and stressed her and made her angry until we found a way to allow her to immerse in a way that felt comfortable to her.
Over time, my work as a balanit has made me realize that we needed to offer women the option to go alone. When I discussed these issues with a prominent rabbinic authority he thanked me for sharing the voice of the balanit, and the voices of the women with whom I’ve come into contact. Based on the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah 198:40, which states that a woman over the age of 12 years and one day needs to stand over the immersing woman to make sure not one hair sticks out of the water; but if there is no one to do so or if it is at night, she can tie her hair back (in a hairnet) and immerse alone, the Rav of the Yishuv agreed that women could (regularly) immerse without a balanit.
What I have realized over time is that there might be women who do not want another woman present for multiple reasons: emotional, physical and spiritual. It can be based on body image issues, prior sexual traumas or the desire for privacy when engaged in a spiritual experience. It took time to realize that it is not a personal affront against me or other mikveh attendants, many of whom are wonderful, dedicated and sincere women, but rather a genuine desire on the part of women to be sovereign over their experience.
Over the last year, Elazar joined a very small group of mikvaot in the country that allow women the option of choosing whether to have the attendant supervise or not. For the woman who detested having a balanit, it literally changed mikveh night from a dreaded experience to a positive one. Other women, who for many years had not minded the balanit decided to try immersing alone and some found that it was a much more powerful and spiritual experience. And – to my surprise – most women have actually chosen that they prefer to immerse in the presence of the attendant; there is a sense of camaraderie that many women enjoy when they rely on the attendant to supervise and they do not want to give it up.
The last few months have been a battlefield around women’s rights in the mikveh. This usually quiet and private affair has turned into a public debate. But the discussion has led to acknowledgement of the different voices in the field, and of women’s right to choose. To my tremendous surprise the debate has allowed many women explore their own needs and beliefs, and find the place in which they feel most comfortable. This was such an important step and will lead, in my opinion, to more commitment to mikveh and more appreciation for the world of Torah and Halakha.