Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem has reached crisis point and is no longer scheduling hearings or dealing with its massive case backlog.
There are some 2,900 current files open in front of the court, many involving difficult and complex issues, including many instances of women who cannot obtain a divorce from their husbands.
The collapse of the court stems from the severe political deadlock surrounding the appointments process over the last 18 months as well as an earlier appointments freeze due to legal challenges to the appointments process, so that no appointments have been made in close to four years.
The only fully active rabbinical judges on the court are the two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau. Rabbis Tzion Elgrabli and Tzion Boaron are the other two serving rabbinical judges, but Elgrabli cannot attend hearings at all because he is in bad health, while Boaron is also sick but can attend on occasion.
Last week, a woman referred to as Ilana, who has been denied a divorce for nine years, was informed that her appeal to the court could not be heard because the court was not scheduling any hearings owing to the lack of rabbinical justices.
The Mavoi Satum women’s rights group has now filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding either that it order the available rabbinical judges to convene and hear Ilana’s case, or, failing that and in a unusual request, that the High Court of Justice itself hear the case.
Mavoi Satum director Batya Kahana-Dror said in the petition that the failure to hold a hearing harms Ilana’s basic rights to have her day in court and to gain access to courts of law, be they civil or religious, and said that rabbinical court’s refusal to hold hearings aids the recalcitrant husband.
“This situation is causing a severe delay of justice for the petitioner and those involved in the case... and is therefore playing into the hands of the recalcitrant husband, who is abusing his wife in this way,” said Kahana-Dror.
“If there was a situation in which the High Court of Justice closed its gates to Israeli citizens, there wouldn’t be one person who would not cry out against such circumstances...
and it’s sad how little anyone cares about the rabbinical courts, a state body which everyone is dependent on,” she added, referencing the fact that the rabbinical courts have sole jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel.
There are five empty seats on the Rabbinical High Court, and Elgrabli and Boaron are both scheduled to retire later this year.
In addition, there are 21 empty seats on the 12 regional rabbinical courts.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has proposed that three temporary appointments be made to the Rabbinical High Court, but even these temporary appointments have been delayed.
His three temporary nominations have been waiting for approval from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked for some time, but her office now says they could be approved as soon as Monday.
Permanent appointments will likely have to wait even longer, since the composition of the Committee for Rabbinical Court Appointments, like other similar committees, is yet to be finalized and approved by the Knesset. The delay is also due to proposed legislation to expand the panel from 11 seats to 13.
During the last Knesset, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie and then-Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli succeeded in getting a law passed guaranteeing that the committee comprise at least four women.
But the coalition agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism stipulates that the new government pass legislation to expand the committee further, from 11 to 13 members, by adding an additional minister and MK, with at least one of the two coalition lawmakers on the panel coming from UTJ, the goal of which is effectively to dilute the influence of the women on the panel.
Bayit Yehudi’s coalition agreement with the Likud stipulates that they oppose this legislation, but UTJ and Shas will nevertheless move forward with the legislation, the process of which will take many months, possibly more than a year, thus further delaying convening the committee and appointing rabbinical judges.