Several months ago, in a discussion about the methodology of the great Sephardic rabbi of the past, I mentioned, by passing the famous ruling of R. Abdallah Somekh, who allowed using the public water system for a Mikveh. According to that ruling, large bathtubs and swimming pools would qualify as a mikveh. Reliance on that ruling, as was customary in Iraq and Morocco, would allow Jewish communities to have a mikveh on every block and would encourage many women, who are otherwise reluctant to attend the mikveh, to do so.
In response to the article, I received the following email from R. Yossi Azose, a descendant of R. Somekh (who also ordained my Great Grandfather, R. Yehudah Fetaya), in which he introduced me to his learned study of the prevalence of tap-water mikvaot in America in the early to mid-20th century, and the causes leading to today’s stringent stance. R. Azose wrote:
The practice was endorsed not only by Sephardic poskim. as you mentioned, but many Ashkenazic authorities as well (most prominently Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of Arokh Hashulhan).
In the 1890’s, R. Pesachya Hornblass member of the Warsaw bet din, visited the spa resort of Carlsbad [Karlovy Vary] and encountered married non-observant Jewish women who remarked to him that they would consider keeping the laws of niddah if they could immerse in a spa, rather than in the cold waters of the community mikva’ot of the time. This gave R. Hornblass the thought that perhaps the rabbinate should allow these women to immerse in a thermal spa and reduce their prohibition to a derabbanan (according to the Rambam who holds that mayim she’uvin is only a rabbinic prohibition), whereas doing nothing would keep them as niddot under the penalty of karet. R. Hornblass presented his suggestion to his colleagues in an article in the Torah journal Sha’are Torah, and after a couple of months of feedback, he wrote a follow-up article in the same Journal stating that it wasn’t a good idea because such a leniency would lead to abuse by observant women who otherwise would have used the regular mikveh, but would misunderstand that the rabbis were giving them carte blanche to use the thermal spa.
R. Azose concluded that the “ultimate fear of the unintended consequence that being very lenient would have on otherwise God-fearing people, is a factor that must be considered as well”.
In the article (see PDF link below), R. Azose shows that at least a dozen of the most highly regarded halakhic authorities in America prior to WWII, all signed on to the permissibility of using tap water for a mikveh. In addition, he has shown evidence that indeed most mikva’ot in America, and some in the UK, were originally constructed in this manner.
All this changed with the arrival of European rabbis after WWII. Those rabbis, led by the Helmetzer Rebbe, launched a campaign against the mikveh’s and the communities which sustained them, and with the fall of the Seattle Mikveh, the last one standing, have accomplished the mission of abolishing all of them.
That battle was part of the general war against the “lenient” practices of American Jews, which have evolved gradually and were adjusted to the reality of American life. The rabbis who came from Europe after the war did not experience the gradual changes, and were not familiar with the circumstances which bred those changed. What they saw was strikingly different than their religious life-style and they reacted with zeal.
In retrospect, one realizes that with the abolishment of the tap-water mikveh, the rabbis have created a new map of the Jewish United States, in which small rural communities cannot survive. Jews must gravitate around a large enough community which can sustain a “rigorously” kosher mikveh, whose construction could range from 300,000 to a million dollars.
The “stringent” approach of the newly-arrived European rabbis, has solidified, in their mind and that of their modern-day successors, the identity of orthodox Judaism, but it had disastrous results.
The readers recall the warning of the Shach that a stringency is bound to breed a leniency, even if after a hundred stages, so here are some of the problems that “stringent” rabbis have not foreseen. We could say that they were very lenient in allowing the following things to happen:
Many women do not observe the laws of family purity simply because they live far from a mikveh, or because they feel that visiting the mikveh is an invasion of privacy. It is very difficult for young mothers to find time to visit the mikveh without the children taking notice, and if the time to go to the mikveh falls on a Friday night, it is almost impossible to attend the mikveh. These coming High Holidays present us with three weekends of Yom tov, Yom Tov, and Shabbat back to back, causing observant couples who do not live within a walking distance to a mikveh sadness and agony as they feel separated for three days. Serious problems are also presented for those traveling to those parts of the world where a kosher mikveh is a rarity.
Some people will still argue that these are sacrifices we make for God’s sake or for the integrity of the law, and I would remind them that there were cases of women who were assaulted on their way to or from the mikveh, and some fifteen years ago, a woman was killed on Friday night, walking in a dark street in Lakewood, NJ, on her way back home from the mikveh.
Had the rabbis not launched their war against tap-water mikveh, we would see the creation of ritual baths in private homes all over the country, and all the problems mentioned above would have been solved. There is no doubt that the “traditional” mikveh would have continued to exist and that many observant women would only use that kind of mikveh, but then it will be their choice.
To be continued…
Rabbi Haim Ovadia