Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has been forced to back down over new criteria he sought to apply to candidates for the Supreme Rabbinical Court that would have greatly strengthened his control over the appointments process.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked personally intervened and requested that the council of the chief rabbinate not approve the new criteria at the monthly meeting of the council on Monday, describing them as “designed to thwart specific candidates without discussion of the rabbinical judges appointments committee.”
According to some allegations, the new criteria were designed to increase Yosef’s control of the appointments process in general, and specifically to thwart the appointment of Rabbi Yair Ben-Menachem, a highly respected young rabbinical judge from the national-religious sector.
There are currently seven empty seats on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which hears appeals from the 12 regional rabbinical courts around the country. The rabbinical courts have exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce, and therefore have heavy influence over Jewish citizens, regardless of whether they are religious or not, in the realm of personal status issues.
In September, 22 new appointments were made to the regional courts and efforts have been made since then to find candidates for the supreme rabbinical court agreeable to both the haredi and liberal camps of the selection committee.
Until now, the criteria to serve as a rabbinical judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court required a candidate to have passed the relevant exams to serve as a rabbinical judge and to have served as a rabbinical judge in one of the regional courts for at least three consecutive years.
An internal committee established by the chief rabbinate in November last year and comprising Rabbis Yehudi Deri, brother of Shas leader Arye Deri, Yaakov Shapira and Yitzhak Ralbag, father-in-law of Chief Rabbi David Lau, drew up new criteria.
The new terms for serving on the Supreme Rabbinical Court stipulated that a candidate must have served for ten years on a regional rabbinical court and must have served as the head of a three-man judicial panel in the regional courts.
Crucially, the new criteria also required that the candidate received a written opinion from the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, a function fulfilled by one of the chief rabbis, currently Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
The legal adviser to the chief rabbinate Harel Goldberg flagged up the new criteria, especially that requiring a written opinion from the president of the supreme rabbinical court, saying that it could circumvent the entire appointments process.
Rabbinical judges to the regional and supreme courts are selected by a committee comprising 11 members including the two chief rabbis; two serving rabbinical judges on the Supreme Rabbinical Court; two government ministers; two MKs; two attorneys from the Israel Bar Association; and one female rabbinical court advocate.
There are currently no permanent supreme rabbinical court justices apart from the two chief rabbis, who serve as justices on the supreme rabbinical court as part of their duties as chief rabbis.
Goldberg wrote in his legal opinion that the new criteria would circumvent the authority of the committee since it could lead to the disqualification of candidates before their candidacy even reached the committee for consideration if they did not receive a favorable written opinion from Yosef or the serving supreme rabbinical court president.
“Changing the criteria would circumvent the law for rabbinical judges and would make the work of the committee for selecting rabbinical judges redundant as an elective and independent committee,” said Shaked.
Zionist Union MK Revital Swid also criticized the proposed changes to the qualification criteria calling it a “flagrant attempt” to circumvent the selection committee and “dictate to it” which candidates to select.
“While the committee is working hard to appoint new rabbinical judges and to come to agreements the Council of the Chief Rabbinate is working in parallel to circumvent the committee,” said Swid.
“If only candidates who get the recommendation of the chief rabbi can submit their candidacy to the Supreme Rabbinical Court this would be an obstacle to candidates particularly those from the national-religious sector.
“This is an unconstitutional measure that nullifies the entire purpose and and essence of the selection committee which would not pass the test of the High Court of Justice.”
In response to the accusations, Yosef’s office said that appointments to the supreme rabbinical court were being delayed by “a bloc formed by politicians and those with vested alien interests for whom the good of those coming before the gates of the rabbinical court is not at the top of their priorities.”
The chief rabbi was referring to the bloc of female members of the rabbinical judges selection committee, Shaked, Swid, female rabbinical courts advocate Dr. Rachel Levmore and Israel Bar Association representative Efrat Rosenblatt.
This bloc is advocating for the appointment of liberal minded rabbinical judges who will be more inclined to find creative solutions with Jewish law to prevent the phenomenon of long-term divorce refusal, as well as to other problems which arise regarding Jewish personal status.
But the haredi camp itself has the same veto since there are only nine members on the current committee and selections require seven votes, meaning that the two current serving chief rabbis and United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler can block the nominations of the liberal camp.
In relation to the new recommendations for qualification criteria, Yosef said that the proposed criteria were merely draft proposals suggested by the committee set up to change the criteria by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, claiming that he had not requested the changes and had decided already by Sunday to vote against them.
Following Shaked’s request, Yosef’s colleague Chief Rabbi David Lau who serves as the president of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate instructed the secretariat of the council to remove a vote from the agenda of the council on the new criteria which were scheduled to be voted on Monday in the monthly meeting.
Lau said that the internal committee of the chief rabbinate should reconsider the proposals for new criteria for supreme rabbinical court candidates.
Although appointments to the regional courts were made in September, little progress has been made on appointments to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, largely due to a lack of consensus.
Yosef has made several temporary appointments to the court to keep it operational and it was suspected that the temporary appointments could forestall any permanent appointments.
Last week the High Court of Justice ruled that permanent appointments must be made by April 10 and if not the terms of Yosef’s temporary appointments would be ended by 30 days later.
It appears that this pressure is the proximate cause of efforts to change the qualification criteria.
According to sources close to the committee Yosef opposes Ben-Menachem’s appointment due to his young age, with the chief rabbi preferring to nominate candidates with seniority within the rabbinical courts system.
Yosef reportedly wants to preserve his position as the source of sephardic appointments to the supreme rabbinical courts and is also concerned for a swing in Sephardi votes to Bayit Yehudi if the national religious party is successful in promoting a prominent and authoritative national religious Sephardi rabbi to high office.
Levmore described Ben-Menachem as “brilliant” and as a prolific writer of legal opinions and rulings who has written some 1,400 pages of rulings in Jewish law in his five years as a rabbinical judge first in the Netanya regional court and now in Tel Aviv.
“He himself is a product of a long standing humane tradition of the rabbis from Morocco displaying a practical approach and adapting to the needs of society in accordance with the times,” said Levmore.
“Rabbi Ben-Menachem combines his intellect, care for people and his tradition of humane rabbinics with innovative halachic thought and mechanisms which are based on solid foundations of Jewish law to simply help people,” she added.