The Use of Municipal City Water for a Mikveh and a Case Study of the
Seattle Rabbinate in the 1950s
Rabbi Yossi Azose
The purpose of the following essay is twofold. First, we shall highlight an example of a lenient halakhic practice in America that had gained widespread acceptance among the Orthodox Jewish community throughout the first half of 20th century, and the subsequent opposition to this practice by leading Orthodox authorities in the 1950s who successfully challenged its legality, to the point where today it is generally considered beyond the bounds of accepted halakha.
Second, we shall focus on a critical juncture in American Orthodox Jewish history wherein a noticeable shift occurred in the paradigm of halakhic authority, from initially residing primarily within the domain of the community rabbi into the hands of the country’s leading gedolei hador and roshei yeshiva. The effects of this shift have laid the groundwork for a current trend in America that increasingly favors the authority of gedolim and roshei yeshiva over the local Orthodox rabbi.
As a backdrop to our analysis, we shall examine the circumstances surrounding the controversy that erupted over the kashrut of the Seattle mikveh
in the 1950s. This little known story, long ago forgotten by but a very few who are still around to remember, represents a vivid moment in the history of the American Jewish experience when the forces of these two aforementioned sources of authority collided with one another. Though the in-depth, technical halakhic questions involved in using municipal city water to fill a mikveh are beyond the scope of this essay, it is hoped that it will provide both a historical overview, as well as a general summary of the halakhic issues surrounding the matter.