Members of the Rabbinical Judges Appointments Committee and women’s rights groups are increasingly concerned over what they describe as a Shas veto against appointing three liberal candidates to the regional rabbinical courts.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, the representative female rabbinical- court advocate on the appointments committee, called on committee chairman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday not to acquiesce to Shas’s veto.
Fellow committee member MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) again called on Steinitz to “appoint appropriate rabbinical judges,” while a separate source close to committee member and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked objected to Shas’s rejection of national-religious candidates.
The committee is set to appoint up to 24 new rabbinical judges to the 12 regional courts on Thursday, and seven rabbinical judges to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem.
In order to prevent lengthy wrangling and delays in the committee over the selection of the 24 judges, the haredi and non-haredi representatives have reached an unofficial agreement to divide up the available positions, so that a third of the seats will go to Ashkenazi haredi judges, a third to Sephardi haredi judges and a third to national- religious judges.
Some of the non-haredi committee members have said, however, that Shas, in addition to advancing its own candidates, is objecting to three candidates in particular, due to their liberal outlook on Jewish law and the written positions they have drafted to the courts on critical issues such as recalcitrant spouses who refuse to grant divorces.
The three candidates are rabbis David Bass, Benayahu Bruner and Nir Vargon, all of whom are members of the national-religious Tzohar rabbinical association, which Shas and its spiritual leaders have fiercely criticized.
Bass is also an attorney and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.
Bruner is the head of the Zionist yeshiva for married students in Safed, and Vargon is the head of the Jewish studies program at Netanya Academic College.
Shas also reportedly objects to the appointment of serving rabbinical judge Rabbi Uriel Lavie to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Several well-placed sources have alleged that Shas and its chairman, Arye Deri, are seeking to postpone the appointment of nine out of the possible 24 appointments, and to wait until Levmore’s term on the committee expires.
As per the terms of the coalition agreement between Shas and the Likud, the authority to appoint the female rabbinical- court advocate to the committee was transferred in July from the justice minister to the religious services minister, who is currently Shas member David Azoulay.
This would give Shas greater influence over the committee, and thereby over which candidates will receive those nine positions.
There are currently five haredi members on the committee, including the two chief rabbis, two serving Supreme Rabbinical Court judges, and United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler.
The four women on the committee – Shaked, Swid, Levmore and attorney Efrat Rosenblatt, who represents the Israel Bar Association – have all united to form a bloc of votes.
The four are in agreement to back the proposed national- religious candidates and are, according to sources, still committed to insisting on the appointment of the three candidates Shas opposes – although one source said this could change if “practical considerations” necessitated it.
The last two members, Steinitz and attorney Asher Axelrod (also of the Bar Association), will likely have the casting vote over which candidates are approved or rejected.
One source close to the committee said Steinitz was not greatly invested or interested in the committee, and that the deciding factor for him would be the intervention, or lack thereof, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should the latter receive pressure from the haredi parties.
But Levmore, describing Steinitz as “an enlightened man,” said he now had responsibility for the entire Jewish people.
“The four women on the committee have selected the most enlightened candidates for rabbinical judge appointments, who view women as equals and who will plow through all the sources of Jewish law to free women who have been refused a bill of divorce or who are ‘chained’ to their marriages,” she said.
“Steinitz should not allow the haredi parties to veto these candidates,” she continued.
“If he toes the haredi party line and chairs the committee in keeping with haredi instructions, then he will be turning his back on all Jewish women in Israel, who enter the rabbinical courts at a disadvantage, most likely generating future victims of divorce refusal and chained women.”
Swid said that the scheduled appointments “will determine the character of rabbinical courts for decades to come,” and added that “Minister Steinitz has a great responsibility on Thursday to appoint fitting rabbinical judges.”
A spokesman for Shas said that since the party does not have a representative on the committee, Deri and Shas have “minimal influence” over the proceedings.
Steinitz’s office declined to comment.