Battling the rabbinate’s bias against women
LAST UPDATED: 01/31/2012 22:50
Bias backed by politicians and lobbyists who care more about coalition politics than gender equality.
Haredi man passes women sitting in front of bus Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
The most substantial bias against women that exists today in Israel is
perpetrated by the country’s chief rabbinate, with the backing of politicians
and lobbyists, both secular and religious, who care more about coalition
politics than the full and equal participation of women in public life.
Jewish woman today has no ability whatsoever to directly influence the rabbinate
and its various branches, is barred from decision making posts in the Religious
Services Ministry and is excluded from the country’s religious councils. The
best a woman can hope for currently is to be able to give a minority opinion on
which male rabbinic judges will be named to serve in Israel’s religious court
system, which has authority over marriage and divorce, among other
Some might object to this characterization, saying that Judaism
has deep respect for women and their rights. However, the fact is that the type
of Judaism to which the government has given a monopoly over Jewish custom and
tradition in the state – namely the Orthodox type – might revere women, but only
when they know their place. And that place, in the the rabbinic system governing
Israel, is no better than that of a child; to be seen and maybe sometimes heard,
but never to be given authority to decide what is best for them.
systemic bias pervades the political system in Israel, right to the very top.
Over the 63 years of the state’s existence, the Religious Services Ministry,
which financially supports and bureaucratically controls the rabbinate, has been
under the power of the all-male ultra-Orthodox parties, which do not let women
vote or serve as Members of Knesset.
Those women who are appointed by
official bodies to oversee the choice of religious judges (who by current
definition can only be men), are a token at best, so these bodies can be spun as
being representative. The reality in Israel is that women, whether
religious or secular, are barred by law from influencing decisions concerning
government policy that directly and immediately impacts their
Recently, the women of the Emuna organization petitioned the
Supreme Court to demand equal representation on the committee to appoint
religious judges, citing the requirement for equal representation of women on
government committees. It was a nice gesture, but it obscures the fact
that the glass ceiling is so thick that women need to beg just to press their
faces against it. The reality is that women can currently protest all they want,
but at the end of the day, according to the current institutions of the State of
Israel, only a man can serve as judge and jury in some of the most sensitive
moments of a citizen’s life.
The Knesset must work to change this
segregated reality, and Jewish women around the world need to lend a hand to
support those groups that are working to crack the glass ceiling in Israel. This
is essential because women in the State of Israel today can be married only by
men, can be divorced only with the consent of a male judge, and are therefore by
law at the mercy of men when it comes to their personal status and
As long as there is no religious freedom in Israel, women’s
rights will relegated to the back of the political bus. This dark reality will
continue so long as women remain silent, so long as the Knesset finds it more
expedient to build a coalition around ultra-Orthodoxy’s denial of women’s
equality, so long as the Diaspora continues to support yeshivot and seminaries
and major Jewish institutions that provide the power base for the religious
establishment to maintain its grip on civil society in Israel.
If we want
to break through this glass ceiling, and ensure women’s equality in the Jewish
state, we must act quickly to change the structure of the rabbinate, to
strengthen requirements for equal representation in all governmental bodies, and
to make the bold statement that the Jewish People do not permit men to have sole
authority over the lives of women.
The writer is CEO of PresenTense
Israel. She previously served as CEO of the Israel Women’s Network.