For the first time in the state's history, three new Great Rabbinical Court dayanim (judges) were sworn in simultaneously Thursday, in a ceremony at Beit Hanassi.
Rabbis Menachem Hashai of Haifa, Zion Boaron of Petah Tikva and Zion Algrabli of Jerusalem took the same oath of office as is taken by civil court judges. They made their declarations in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar, who is president of the Great Rabbinical Court, and Yona Metzger who presides over the Rabbinical Council, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Deputy Prime Minister and Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai.
The three, who previously headed regional rabbinical courts, are all products of Sephardi yeshivot. All were born abroad and came to Israel as children. Algrabli was born in Morocco in 1948, Boaron was born in Libya in 1945 and Hashai in Yemen in 1940.
The ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, the director-general of the Rabbinical Courts. At the special request of Amar it was held on the eve of Yom Kippur, to emphasize the weight of responsibility borne by each and every judge who sits in the Great Rabbinical Court.
In a reference to the joint efforts of Amar and Friedmann to resolve issues affecting the status of a large number of Israel's citizens, Peres said that he was aware that they were doing everything possible but urged them to find solutions for specific problems such as agunot (women anchored in marriage because their husband have disappeared), women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious bill of divorce and families that are not part of the mainstream population in terms of religious status or identity.
Peres was certain that solutions could be found without changing or distorting religious law.
Amar, quoting from Peres's address, said that it was incumbent on a rabbinical court judge to feel as if there was a sword poised between his shoulder blades and hell opening up beneath him. "This would remind him that he cannot afford to sway to the right or to the left, nor can he afford to make a mistake," he said.
It was a wonderful gift for the people of Israel on the eve of Yom Kippur to bring "three great Torah giants" into the Rabbinical Court, he said. Amar described them as "righteous men who always seek the path of kindness and graciousness."
Metzger recalled that the last time that he and Amar had come together to Beit Hanassi had been an historic occasion - the president's first day in office, when he had participated in the completion and dedication of a Torah scroll. "Today you made history again." he told Peres, explaining that in the four years that he and Amar had served as chief rabbis, they had never participated in the swearing in of a dayan, because not a single one had been appointed. In fact, it was the first time in the state's history that three rabbis had been simultaneously sworn in to the Great Rabbinical Court - the maximum number in the past had been two, he said.
Friedmann, who chaired the nine-member appointments committee, also noted the long hiatus since rabbinical judges were last appointed. "For many years dayanim were not appointed in general and to the Great Rabbinical Court in particular," he said.
Adding to the problems posed by Peres, Friedmann cited the shmita year and the difficulties it is bringing with it. In his meetings with Amar, he said, he had found in him the moderate spirit of Hillel and not the severity of Shamai. He was hopeful that on this and other issues, Amar would emulate the attitude of Hillel. Friedmann also cited Rabbeinu Gershon who had introduced monogamy to Jewish family life, which Friedmann said was an important step towards women attaining equality, which he added they should have in every sphere.
Responding on behalf of his colleagues, Hashai said that they felt privileged to have been selected to serve on the Great Rabbinical Court, were fully conscious of the onus placed on them, and undertook not to pass judgment without first examining every minute detail.
In an interesting footnote to the ceremony, International Women's Rights lawyer Sharon Shenhav, who was the only woman on the appointments committee, realized that the ceremony was gender-segregated, and was about to make her way to the women's section, when she was summoned to sit with the men. When she said that she didn't mind sitting with the women under the circumstances, she was told that as a member of the committee, she had to sit with the committee - and thus was the only woman in the men's section. Perhaps a sign of progress.
Thursday's appointments have nothing to do with the delay in the appointment of 17 dayanim to the regional rabbinic courts that deal primarily with marital laws.
That delay is being caused by a dispute between haredi and modern Orthodox members of the selections committee. Modern Orthodox members are pushing for judges with a broad academic background who would be more open to the sensitivities of secular couples and womens' rights.