(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
How much longer can it go on? Thousands of couples are presently unable to divorce due to an unhealthy marriage of politics and religion.
For at least 18 months the Committee for Rabbinical Court Appointments, made up of both rabbis and politicians, has been paralyzed by infighting and power struggles.
No new appointments have been made. In the meantime, elderly or sick judges have left their positions.
The dearth of judges has generated a tremendous backlog of cases waiting to be tried, particularly by the High Rabbinic Court, an appeals court that deals with the most difficult cases.
What is holding up the new appointments? The narrow interests of Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Bayit Yehudi, which are attempting to impose their respective wills on the committee, each in the name of a different stream of Orthodoxy. Shas represents Sephardi haredi Jewry, UTJ represents the Ashkenazi haredim, and Bayit Yehudi is looking out for the interests of the religious Zionists. Each would like to see members of its own religious sub-sect elected and keep to a minimum judges hailing from rival sub-sects.
Take the case of Rabbi Uriel Lavi, an innovative halachic expert who serves on the rabbinic court in Safed and was a candidate to become a judge on the High Rabbinic Court. Because the man ruled leniently in a divorce case involving a man in a coma, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredim have blackballed Lavi, refusing to appoint him. In retribution, members of the committee looking for more “liberal” religious Zionists have refused to vote for haredi candidates and former justice minister Tzipi Livni protested by refraining from convening the committee, a power the chairman of the committee enjoys.
UTJ also wants to dilute the influence of women on the committee by adding two additional members to the current 11. And Shas is demanding that the entire religious court apparatus be transferred back to the Religious Services Ministry, from which it was removed and placed in the Justice Ministry a decade ago, when Yosef “Tommy” Lapid’s Shinui Party led a short-lived secularist political revolution.
As all of this political wrangling is going on, however, thousands of couples are unable to get divorced and carry on with their lives. These couples have been denied legal recourse, a basic human right, as the politicians and religious functionaries fight their petty fights.
This state of affairs is nothing less than scandalous. But we should expect nothing less from an arrangement that weds politics with religion. It’s as if the lessons of democracy’s forefathers were never learned. We must remember that the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between political power and religious authority had a dual function: it protected politics from the authoritarian rule of religious bigots; but it also protected religious freedoms from the meddling of politicians and their narrow, base, and mundane interests.
Ideally, we would like to see religion separated as much as possible from the state, while maintaining the Orthodox hegemony over marriages and divorces in the name of Jewish unity and in order to prevent the creation of different tribes within the Jewish people that are unable to marry one another.
Private rabbinic courts recognized as Orthodox could receive nominal recognition by the state to oversee divorces. Politicians would have no say in the appointment process. Israeli Jews would be permitted to pick the rabbinic court of their choice.
Unfortunately, under the present political constellation there is little chance of this happening. Bayit Yehudi, Shas, and UTJ are all vehemently opposed to the privatization of rabbinic courts. They have entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo, because it is a source of political and religious power.
Therefore, the more likely outcome will be to leave the present religious institutions in place, while in parallel opening up the option of civil marriages. As our dysfunctional religious courts and chief rabbinate become increasingly unbearable, Israelis – both religious and secular – will clamor to be freed from the shackles of a highly politicized religious establishment. Israelis will have the choice to marry and divorce in civil ceremonies – and if they choose to augment this with a religious ceremony, they will be able to do so outside the staterun religious courts or the rabbinate.
The founding fathers of democracy taught us long ago that combining religion with politics corrupts both. And this axiom holds true in the Jewish state no less than elsewhere.