A clause in the coalition deal between the Likud and Shas in which the authority over the rabbinical courts system will be transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry has been widely criticized for its implications for women’s divorce rights.
In addition, the coalition agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism stipulates that the new government pass legislation to expand the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges 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 deal with Shas also grants the haredi party control of the Religious Services Ministry.
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.
Women’s rights activists see the committee as a crucial forum to advance women’s divorce rights, since they believe that the appointment of more moderate rabbinical judges will lead to greater protection for women from extortion in divorce proceedings, which forms a large part of the work of the rabbinical courts system.
In addition, activists argue that the rabbinical courts have great influence over marriage in Israel since it is they which rule on the validity of marriage registration applications regarding converts, questions of Jewish status and other aspects of Jewish law related to marriage.
Appointments of rabbinical judges have not been made for several years due to legal challenges by women’s rights groups over the composition of the appointment’s committee and there are several vacancies on the various courts, meaning that the new committee representatives will have significant influence over the rabbinical courts system in the coming years.
There are five empty seats on the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, as well as 14 empty seats on the 12 regional rabbinical courts around the country, which the new committee will fill.
It is unclear whether the agreement with Shas will also seek to transfer the powerful chairmanship of the committee away from the justice minister to the religious services minister. Such a step would require legislative changes to the Law for Rabbinical Judges.
The selection committee is currently composed of the two chief rabbis, two members of Knesset, two rabbinical judges from the Supreme Rabbinical Court, two ministers, one of whom is automatically the justice minister, two attorneys elected by the Israel Bar Association, and a female rabbinical court advocate.
A law passed last year in September 2013, proposed by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie and then-Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, formally guaranteed four spots on the 11-member body to women, a move designed to lead to the appointment of more liberal rabbinical judges.
But several MKs along with women’s rights groups and activists say that the various terms of the agreements between the Likud and the two haredi parties will dilute the influence of the women on the committee and give an automatic majority to the haredi representatives, stymieing the appointment of less conservative rabbinical judges.
“Transferring the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the control of the Religious Services Ministry takes Israel backward,” said Lavie. “It will have a harsh impact on efforts to deal with divorce refusal and without doubt will also harm the status of the rabbinical courts and the improvement of the service they provide, and will also prevent the essential oversight of the civil authority in the Justice Ministry over the rabbinical courts,” Lavie said.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency and a rabbinical court advocate, noted that the ethical guidelines, ethics committees and disciplinary measures within the Justice Ministry applied to both the civil and rabbinical courts, and transferring the rabbinical courts to the Religious Services Ministry would remove this supervisory oversight from the rabbinical courts system.
Levmore said that the new composition of the committee, if the coalition agreements are implemented, would lead to the appointment of rabbinical judges “who are not familiar with the general public as they live a life separated from broader society, and tend toward a stricter interpretation of Jewish law, leading to more victims of divorce refusal and more tragic circumstances of people who will be unable to marry, convert or divorce.”
Attorney Batya Kehana-Dror, the director of the Mavoi Satum divorce rights organization, described the Likud’s agreements with Shas and UTJ as “the pinnacle of Israel’s cynical politics” and said that “the good of Israeli citizens has been dismissed for the purposes of forming a coalition.”
The moderate national-religious lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah also condemned the agreement between the Likud and Shas, saying that transferring the authority over the rabbinical courts to the Shas-controlled Religious Services Ministry would totally disconnect the rabbinical courts from the general public.
“We call on [Bayit Yehudi chairman] Minister Naftali Bennett to take responsibility and demand that the authority over the rabbinical courts remain with the Bayit Yehudi party. He is the only person who can prevent the takeover of the rabbinical courts by haredi politicos and the destruction of public trust in this institution,” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said.
In response, Shas MK Yoav Ben-Tzur said that despite the accusations, his party was devoted to the path taken in Jewish law by its late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who had always looked for leniencies in Jewish law in general and in the field of “chained women” and get divorce refusal in particular.
“Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son, is extremely sensitive to this issue and deals with these matters in a compassionate manner, including specific incidents, and follows in the path of his father who looked for all leniencies to free ‘chained women’ whose husbands were killed and never found during the Yom Kippur War,” said Ben-Tzur.
“As such, the Shas party is also sympathetic to the concerns of the women’s rights groups, and because we follow in the path of Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] we are always seeking to follow the path of leniency and not that of stringency, as long as matters conform with Jewish law as a whole.”