The Knesset, in a recess session on Monday, approved amendments to a new law that will enable just one rabbinical judge, or dayan, to hear and rule on cases in the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Until now, a panel of at least three dayanim was needed to hear a case. The government advanced the legislation because of a severe backlog of cases, as well as a freeze in permanent appointments to the court, known as the Beit Din Hagadol.
According to women’s rights group Mavoi Satum, the court is hugely important since on the issue of religious divorce, regional rabbinical courts seldom oblige a man, who has hitherto refused to give his wife a bill of divorce, to grant the document.
The rabbinical courts system has exclusive jurisdiction over all matters of Jewish marriage and divorce, and these types of cases constitute the majority of its work.
According to Mavoi Satum director Batya Kehana Dror, her organization appeals more than 50 percent of the cases it deals with to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Because of the backlog and the appointments freeze, it can take up to a year to get an appeal heard by the court, Kehana Dror said.
The legislation should in principle allow the court to increase the number of cases it hears.
However, the new law is not applicable to all aspects of a case, and so may only have a limited effect in easing the pressure on the Beit Din Hagadol.
There are only four sitting dayanim on the court, two of whom are temporary appointees made in March this year. In addition, the two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, can also serve as judges on the court.
The High Court of Justice initiated the freeze in November 2011, following a petition by the Emunah women’s rights group in protest at the total absence of women on the appointments committee for rabbinical judges for the first time in 12 years.
Even before the High Court’s freeze, no appointments had been made to the Beit Din Hagadol for several years, due to disagreements over candidates between ultra-Orthodox appointment committee members and more religiously moderate figures on the panel.
The number of rabbinical judges on the court is not strictly defined but has been as high as 11 in recent years.
Since according to Jewish law a woman cannot get remarried and have children without being granted a bill of divorce, or get, by her husband, she is essentially trapped unless she agrees to his terms or turns to the rabbinical courts for a ruling instructing him to grant her the document.
This is frequently a lengthy process. According to the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, the average time it takes for a woman to receive a get once proceedings have been initiated in the rabbinical courts is 642 days.
Between 1995 and 2007, 12.5% of the cases took more than four years before a get was given, and 28.4% took at least two years.
Women’s rights groups say that there are several thousand open cases of get refusal across the country.