The Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel has been described as one of the most influential rabbinic authorities in the world, presiding over some of the weightiest issues in Jewish life and giving direction to rabbis and rabbinical judges at home and throughout the Diaspora.
It was therefore welcome news that for the first time in over eight years, permanent rabbinical judges were appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court earlier this week.
But the appointments process was encumbered for almost a decade with internecine political fighting so severe that it left the court with exactly zero permanent judges on the highest rabbinic authority in the land.
Now that the Machiavellian wrangling has finally ended, the disposition of the court with its full complement of 10 rabbinical judges, not including the two chief rabbis who also serve on the bench, can be discerned.
One of the standout judges appointed this week who has received high praise from appointment committee members is Rabbi Aharon Katz, 66, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi who served as a rabbinical judge in Ashkelon and has also served in recent years as a temporary judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Katz was born in Slovakia and after coming emigrating to Israel served in the IDF and was a Captain in the reserves.
He studied in the prestigious Ponevizeh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and speaks Hebrew, English, German, Yiddish, Slovakian, Hungarian and Russian.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical courts advocate and appointments committee member, described Katz as “a phenomenal judge” and a “brilliant Torah scholar” and said that the rabbi approaches cases of divorce refusal with such great sensitivity that he is frequently able to resolve such cases by dint of his personality and determination in the court room itself.
Another appointee who has been welcomed is Rabbi Eliyahu Refael Heishrik, also 66, who has served for 19 years on the Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv regional rabbinical courts. He has lectured in different legal forums, and like Katz has also served as a temporary the Supreme Rabbinical Court in recent years.
Staff in the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women described Heishrik as a very qualified rabbinical judge who has taken bold stances on issues coming before him in court.
In cases where a couple married abroad in a civil ceremony but subsequently seek divorce in Israel, Heishrik has, unlike some rabbinical judges, refused to rule on anything other than the divorce itself leaving the division of assets, child custody and other similar matters to the family courts.
He has also ruled that if it is clear a marriage has irrevocably broken down and there is no chance of reconciliation then the rabbinical court can issue a ruling obliging a recalcitrant husband to give a divorce.
And a ruling which Katz and Heishrik issued together on the Supreme Rabbinical Court in 2013 has also been warmly welcomed. In this case, a man successfully convinced a regional rabbinical court to formally cast doubt on a divorce that had been overseen by the court because his ex-wife had sued in the family courts for increased child support payments.
The ruling by the lower court meant that the woman could not remarry. Katz and Heishrik ruled however in a two to one decision to overturn this decision on the principle that the divorce itself and the divorce settlement are completely separate.
In so doing they set a precedent for future such cases preventing a situation in which a divorce might never be considered final.
Rabbis Tzion Luz, 53, and Eliezer Igra, 62, two national-religious rabbis, have also been welcomed to the court Alongside these four rabbis are five other appointments whose appointments have been less enthusiastically received.
Indeed, two appointees, Rabbis Yaakov Zamir, 63, and Maimon Nahari, 56, have already issued a troubling decision on the critically important case concerning the conversions of prominent US rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
On Wednesday night, Zamir and Nahari, in their capacity as temporary appointments to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, declined to recognize Lookstein’s conversions and made a woman who converted through him undergo a formal declaration of the acceptance of the Torah’s commandments as an expedited form of conversion.
This decision was denounced by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky for having delegitimized Lookstein’s authority and by Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett as a disgrace.
It has been pointed out that Zamir is a close friend and study partner of committee member and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, while Nahari also has political connections in the Shas party.
And the appointment of Rabbi Yitzhak Elmaliach, 66, has been strongly criticized regarding a case in which he presided where a couple in which both partners were mentally disabled was tricked into signing divorce papers because the father of the husband wanted to break up the marriage.
Elmaliach, who also has political connections in Shas, and the other judges on the bench received formal sanctions in their personnel files by the judges’ ombudsman at the time.
Efrat Rosenblatt, a representative of the Israel Bar Association on the appointments committee, insisted however that all nine appointees were excellent choices.
She also said that the result was “an impressive achievement for religious Zionism,” and counted four national religious rabbis among the 10 elected, although one of those, Rabbi Micahel Amos, is regarded by most people as haredi to all intents and purposes.
Rosenblatt described many of those selected were “the elite of the elite,” said that they were fully connected to the Jewish people and its challenges, and that many of them were rabbis who could take courageous decisions.
Levmore said although there are several very good judges who have been appointed, some of the rest were satisfactory and were not among the best candidates available. In particular, she said that there was no trailblazer among the new appointees which she said are sorely needed.
“Real trailblazers such as [candidates] Rabbis Yair Ben-Menachem and Uriel Lavie who have used their enormous creativity to resolve impossible situations while basing themselves on Talmudic sources and in response were vetoed by Shas,” she said.