In the coming days, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, in consultation with
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, will choose a new administrative head for the
rabbinical court system.
A qualified woman should be given a fair chance
at the job. But due to Israel’s problematic mixture of religion and politics,
which often leads to appointments guided more by political efficacy than the
better good, there is little hope of this happening.
which rule in accordance with Halacha, have exclusive jurisdiction over all
Jewish divorces. (Druse, Muslims and Christians have their own divorce courts.)
Central to the role of the courts is their power to determine the fate of
“chained” women, known as agunot in Hebrew. These are women whose recalcitrant
husbands refuse, for a variety of reasons – sometimes economic, sometimes
personal – to finalize their divorces.
Under Jewish law, neither husband
nor wife can divorce without mutual consent, though Halacha is more strict about
the need for the husband’s consent.
And since monetary issues are often a
major obstacle to completing divorce proceedings, men, who tend to be the
primary breadwinner and own most of the couple’s combined assets, are more
likely to be the cause of delay.
Also, a child born to a woman from
extra-marital relations – known as a mamzer or bastard – is prohibited by Jewish
law from marrying anyone but another mamzer. A mamzer’s offspring retain the
same pariah status and pass it on to their offspring ad infinitum.
contrast, a man who fathers a child out of wedlock transmits no such blemish,
according to Halacha.
As a result, women – especially religious and
traditional- minded women who attach significance to religious decrees – suffer
much more than men from this state of limbo. It is only natural that a woman
would be more sensitive to the plight of agunot.
THE HIGH Court recently
ruled that according to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the
obligated to make a sincere effort to appoint a woman to bodies such as
Turkel Commission, which is charged with investigating the fateful May
interception of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara
. The imperative for this
effort is all the more important regarding the appointment of an
head for the rabbinical courts.
However, the rabbinic powers that be, in
complete disregard for gender equality protected by the State of
Law, have adopted a criterion that effectively excludes women: All
for the position must be ordained rabbinical judges or city rabbis.
criterion is seemingly designed to keep women out. Why must one be a
rabbinical judge to serve in a purely administrative position? There is
dearth of women who are well versed in divorce law, both halachic and
and have the requisite managerial skills as well as a women’s special
sensitivity to the agunot problem. Several women’s rights organizations
already petitioned the High Court to intervene and ensure that qualified
receive the basic courtesy of serious consideration.
Kenigsberg, executive director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center
Advancement of the Status of Women, is precisely such a woman.
Undeterred by the
gender-restrictive criterion published in the public tenders for the
scared away most women, Kenigsberg, intimately familiar with the plight
agunot, knowledgeable about the workings of the rabbinical courts and
extensive managerial experience, has already been shortlisted by a
search committee, which, thanks to Supreme Court intervention, includes a
– attorney Batsheva Sherman.
But Kenigsberg knows better than to
entertain false hopes. When Amar and Neeman sit down to choose the new
administrative head, they will undoubtedly be guided primarily by
considerations, rather than the best interests of agunot.
largest religious party in the government coalition, with close ties to
a political platform that rejects women as MKs, is expected to have
influence over the key appointment.
Shas will score a major victory.
Agunot will be the primary losers. And yet another example will be
the destructive effects of mixing religion with politics.