Just before midnight last Tuesday Israel’s Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges made history. Concluding three long years of bitter disputes, political machinations at the highest levels, the falling of the government causing the replacement of the committee chair and some members, nine regional rabbinical court judges were appointed to the High Rabbinical Court of Appeals in a unanimous vote.
Some have said that this is nothing short of miraculous. It is indeed an historic step – for this court in Jerusalem is the last standing authority on Jewish law in the area of personal status (marriage and divorce) whose decisions are respected in all of the Jewish world, in this age of decentralization of such authority.
After eight years of no appointments of rabbinic judges and the amendment of the law, initiated by MK Aliza Lavie, to include four women in this male bastion, the committee was tasked with appointing 24 regional judges and the entire complement of seven High Court judges. Within Israel’s complex parliamentary system, where religious political parties generally hold the keys to the coalition, at least twice this highly charged mission nearly brought down the government.
Members of the committee include the chair, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, MKs Revital Swid (Zionist Union) and Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism), representatives of the Israel Bar Association Asher Axelrod and Efrat Rosenblatt, as well as myself, as a rabbinical court advocate.
By law, two additional members are supposed to serve on the committee – two judges representing the judges of the High Rabbinical Court.
However, since all the judges had retired there were none to serve. The specific makeup of this committee afforded a majority for what was considered the more liberal, Religious-Zionist faction.
Although this was a historic first, due to political power plays this majority has not been exercised, not for the regional courts nor for the High Court, where a seven- member vote is needed for an appointment.
Nevertheless, Justice Minister Shaked succeeded in creatively resolving a three-year stalemate by bringing about the addition of three more positions to the High Court.
This cleared the way for the appointment of a total of 10 permanent judges, representing the three different streams of Orthodoxy: three haredi- Ashkenazi, four haredi-Sephardi (one with a Religious-Zionist upbringing), three Religious- Zionist. Each one of the three camps is celebrating the appointments of the judges, agreeing that a very good panel was chosen. As the chair of the committee, Minister Steinitz said at the conclusion of the process that the “list of appointees is of good quality, with representation of the different streams of judges.”
Indeed, an analysis of the panel of judges uncovers some historic achievements. First and foremost it should be noted that for the first time in Israeli history, four women on the committee played a crucial role in the appointments process. Their very presence demanded that even the political appointees should have a minimum level of sensitivity to women. During the entire process, candidates made claims as to their success in solving cases of agunot (victims of get-refusal).
Additionally, an unprecedented number of Religious Zionists will now sit on the High Court. One can safely say as well that in recent history there has not been as high a number of judges which have a worldview that considers the good of Israeli society alongside the circumstances of the case. A large percentage of those appointed are industrious, belying the image of the judge who leaves the court at 1:00 p.m., as well as pragmatic, which helps to resolve difficult instances of get-refusal.
Two developments in these appointments are particularly worthy of note. Rabbi Zion Luz is a representative of the Religious Zionist camp. He is the youngest of the group.
At 53 years old he stands to serve 17 years on the court.
The haredi parties, which prefer not to see Religious Zionists on the High Court, will not be able to replace him with one of their own for that period.
On top of that, within a little more than a decade he will be the senior figure on the court, enjoying unprecedented status for a Religious Zionist rabbi while wielding influence that stems from experience and seniority.
Very significantly, in an amazing turn of events, in the High Rabbinical Court which never contained a rabbi who had served in the IDF, a full 50 percent of all the judges now appointed served in the Israeli army. Two of the three Religious Zionist served in combat units; one of the Sephardi- haredi appointees as a combat medic while another as a rabbi in the reserves; and one of the Ashkenazi-haredi judges as an IDF rabbi.
This fact, in and of itself belies the haredi educational line to their young, up and coming Talmud scholars which emphasizes that if they want to reach the pinnacle of haredi society and become a rabbinic court judge, they cannot serve in the Israeli army. The presence of five judges in the highest rabbinical court in the world who are IDF veterans, with three of them haredi, will no doubt infiltrate the consciousness of haredi youth and encourage them to enlist. This progress alone may prove to be this list of appointments’ greatest contribution to Jewish history.
Although this is ostensibly a public committee, unfortunately the politicians pick up the reins of power and lead negotiations while including “politics” external to the committee’s mission. In fact, the two trailblazing judges who were the prime candidates of the Religious Zionist camp were sacrificed on the altar of politics to the haredi vetoes by the Bayit Yehudi Party, as were three such candidates for the regional courts. Although this panel of appointees is good as circumstances allow, both the Religious Zionists as well as the general public served by the rabbinic courts did not see their political representatives stand up for their best interests in the court of high rabbinical politics.The writer is the first female rabbinical court advocate to sit on the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges; director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; holds a PhD in Talmud and is one of the authors of the Israeli prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect.”
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