The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate.
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
If you or someone you know is involved in divorce proceedings, there is a good chance you are aware that the rabbinical court system is barely functioning.
The courts empowered by the state to deal with Jewish divorces are suffering from a dearth of judges. Of about 100 judges, about a third have retired, are on sick leave or have died. The lack of judges has generated a tremendous backlog of cases waiting to be tried, particularly on the High Rabbinical Court where hardly any judges are functioning.
This state of affairs has caused incalculable suffering for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families. Men and women cannot resolve financial and child custody issues and cannot remarry. Families in the process of upheaval are stuck in limbo.
The solution is simple: If there is a shortage of rabbinical judges then let’s appoint new ones. This Thursday, the Committee for Rabbinical Court Appointments is slated to convene to appoint about 30 judges. The problem is that religion and political are intimately intertwined in Israel.
And this makes things infinitely more complicated.
For several years now the Committee for Rabbinical Court Appointments, made up of rabbis, politicians and legal experts, has been paralyzed by a power struggle among warring religious groups.
Essentially, the battle is between Bayit Yehudi, a party that represents the interests of the moderate religious-Zionist camp, and Shas and United Torah Judaism which represent, respectively, Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredim.
Shas and UTJ, following the orders of their rabbis, have repeatedly torpedoed the appointment of rabbinical judges considered too lenient or who are identified with Tzohar, a rabbinic organization that recently challenged the haredi- controlled Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion to Judaism. In response, the religious Zionists have refused to vote for haredi candidates.
Since a majority of eight out of 11 committee members is needed to make appointments, the committee has been stymied during three consecutive governments. Meanwhile, UTJ wants to dilute the influence of women on the committee by adding two members. (Presently, the committee must have at least four female members, though of course no women can be appointed rabbinical judges.) As this sectarian struggle plays out, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of couples are unable to get divorced and carry on with their lives. These couples have been denied legal recourse, a basic human right, as the politicians and religious functionaries fight their petty fights.
Ideally, we would like to see religion separated as much as possible from the state while maintaining the Orthodox hegemony over marriage and divorce in the name of Jewish unity and in order to prevent the creation of different tribes within the Jewish people that are unable to marry one another.
Private rabbinical courts recognized as Orthodox could receive nominal recognition by the state to oversee divorces.
Politicians – whether religious or secular – would have no say in the appointment process. Israeli Jews would be permitted to pick the rabbinical court of their choice.
Unfortunately, under the present political constellation there is little chance of this happening. Bayit Yehudi, Shas and UTJ are all vehemently opposed to the privatization of rabbinical courts. They have entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo because it is a source of political and religious power.
Therefore, the more likely outcome will be to leave the present religious institutions in place while in parallel opening up the option of civil marriage. As our dysfunctional religious courts and Chief Rabbinate become increasingly unbearable, Israelis – both religious and secular – will clamor to be freed from the shackles of a highly politicized religious establishment.
Israelis will have the choice to marry and divorce in a civil ceremony, and if they choose to augment this with a religious ceremony they will be able to do so outside the state-run religious courts or the rabbinate.
We will not be seeing any major changes anytime soon in the way Judaism and politics are inextricably intertwined in the State of Israel. Rather, Shas, UTJ and Bayit Yehudi will eventually reach some sort of a compromise. But both Judaism and democracy are compromised in the process, not to mention the rights of thousands of families undergoing the difficult process of divorce.