THE RABBINICAL court in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Women can be chosen for the highest administrative position in the Rabbinical Courts system, the High Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday in a historic decision following seven years of legal battles.
The 2014 petition that led to the decision was filed by Mavoi Satum, or “Dead End,” director and lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror, whose candidacy for the position of Rabbinical Courts chief administrator had been ignored due to her being female.
A three-justice panel of Elyakim Rubinstein, recently retired, Uri Shoham and Menahem Mazuz said that a combination of the Rabbinical Courts, the Religious Services Ministry and the State Attorney’s Office had failed to create updated eligibility criteria that did not discriminate against women.
“The absence of equal representation in the Rabbinical Courts has stood out for a long time,” wrote the court.
This failure despite being given extensive time, the justices noted, had forced them to declare a set of eligibility criteria and to cancel criteria which could lead to discrimination.
Although Rubinstein reached the mandatory retirement age for judges of 70 in June, he can still hear cases that he started on before then.
Under to the new criteria, a religious female lawyer or a woman who is a recognized Rabbinical Court’s litigator – a position that has been open to women for years – can submit her candidacy for the top position after practicing in the courts for seven years.
The old criteria provided a variety of vague reasons that the Rabbinical Courts had used to block women’s candidacy.
Mavoi Satum said the decision “constitutes a historic jump forward in the area of religion and state, and an important achievement in the struggle for the rights of women in the Rabbinical Court system.”
Kahana-Dror added, “I am happy that I had the honor to head this important proceeding to improve the status of women in Israel,” adding that it also would “strengthen the values of Judaism and democracy” that underlie the state.
A variety of other Knesset members and women’s groups, including New Family director Irit Rosenblum, also praised the decision.
Still, even after the High Court ruling there is no guarantee that the Rabbinical Courts will select a woman for the top administrative position.
The High Court only ordered the Rabbinical Courts that it must fully and equally consider women’s candidacy, not that there must be affirmative action toward selecting a woman.
Some women’s activists are still concerned that the Rabbinical Courts will find clever unofficial reasons, such as objecting to the ideology of female candidates, for blocking women’s candidacies or for not selecting them.
Furthermore, the decision does not allow women to become Rabbinical Court judges. The chief administrator is a bureaucratic position for managing human resources, budget and operations issues, not for deciding Jewish law.
Petitions dating back to 2010 had been rejected by the High Court as premature. But after seven years of related changes, including former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein pushing for advancing women’s rights on the issue, the High Court came to a different conclusion.
In the interim, the 2014 petition had also already led to the appointment of Michal Goldstein as the first woman to be deputy chief administrator of the Rabbinical Courts.