Amidst charges of flawed voting procedures and nepotism, the Dayanim Election Committee decided Tuesday to annul the appointments of 15 judges and to start the selection process over again.
A three-member subcommittee has the task of interviewing about 200 rabbinic judge candidates.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on the subcommittee to work "night and day" to speed the appointment of the judges. He said that the rabbinical judges' workload was great and they desperately needed more judges.
Nevertheless, Amar supported a proposal by Shas Chairman Eli Yishai that only one subcommittee, not two as in the past, would do the interviewing.
Two of the subcommittee members, MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) and a representative of the rabbinic courts, support haredi interests. The other subcommittee would have been controlled by religious Zionists.
MK Nissan Slomiansky (National Religious Party) and Attorney Eli Shmuelian, who support religious Zionist candidates, claim that Yishai was trying to monopolize the voting process. In the last vote, only three of the 15 judges appointed were religious Zionists - the rest were haredim.
Meanwhile, a handful of petitioners to the High Court are deliberating whether to continue their court battle. These petitioners claim that the appointment process for the rabbinic judges was rigged by followers of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, respectively the Sephardi and Ashkenazi spiritual leaders of haredi Judaism. But after the committee decided to annul the appointments and start over again, the High Court petition might be unnecessary.
The petition created surprising bedfellows, bringing together the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Council with the Orthodox Tzohar Rabbis and Emunah Women's Organization and the Israel Bar Association.
Meanwhile, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, after reading the High Court petitions, published a legal opinion arguing that there were problems with the voting procedure. However, Mazuz focused on technicalities, while the petitions claim the appointments had been tainted by nepotism and political considerations.
Several of the 15 judges whose appointments were rescinded are related to members of Shas. Others are related to leading figures in the religious establishment.
A source in the rabbinical courts responded to the claims of nepotism.
"Do you think it is coincidence that sons and daughters of prominent doctors are admitted to the most prestigious specialty programs?" asked the source. "Or that sons of lawyers become lawyers as well? It's not just about contacts. Rather, there is simply a bigger chance that sons and daughters will choose the occupation of their fathers.
"Besides, all of the candidates passed some of the most difficult tests in the academic world. The...exam to become a rabbinic judge is harder than any of the bar exams."
The judges who are chosen will rule on marital and divorce matters, which include the highly controversial and politically charged issue of agunot or "chained" women who, according to Jewish law, are stuck in limbo between divorce and remarriage because the recalcitrant husband refuses to provide a get, a writ of divorce.
Rabbinic judges receive a salary of NIS 20,000 a month, equivalent to a district civil court judge. But rabbinic prestige is the real attraction for some of the best and brightest of the yeshiva world.
Attorney Sharon Shenhav, the Israel Bar Association's representative on the appointment committee, said after Tuesday's meeting: "I hope the new judges will be creative, compassionate and courageous enough to solve the problem of agunot and free them to remarry."