The rabbinate and women

July 29, 2015 20:34
3 minute read.
Hapoel Jerusalem’s Bar Timor and Eilat’s Afik Nissim

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate – once the majority of Israeli citizens no longer connect to the Jewish nature of Israel, we will be left with a soulless country that is constantly fighting for its very existence.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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It is no secret that Orthodox Judaism discriminates against women. They are barred from holding rabbinic positions; they are forbidden to serve as witnesses before a rabbinic court; they are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis men in Jewish divorce law; the two haredi religious parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – even prevent women from serving as Knesset members.

One of the freedoms citizens of a liberal democracy such as Israel enjoy is the right to choose a traditional lifestyle and the restrictions that come with it. But these gender restrictions should not be forced on others.

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Unfortunately, due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriages and divorces in Israel, the sorts of gender discriminations that are inherent in Orthodox Judaism are forced on Israeli Jews whether they like it or not. The ceremony for those Jews who marry in Israel is dictated by Orthodox Jewish law. If a couple divorces, the process is governed by Halacha, often interpreted by men with a highly patriarchal perspective. This is part of what is referred to as the “religious status quo” dating back to the establishment of the State of Israel.

And this gender discrimination spills over to more mundane realms. For instance, the appointment process of the director-general of the rabbinical courts, a purely administrative position, is dictated by religious sensibilities that discriminate against women.

Qualified women, with the requisite managerial skills and background in Jewish divorce law, are prevented from competing for the position.

Currently, the law states clearly that candidates for the position must pass the exams required by the Chief Rabbinate to serve as a rabbinical judge or a city rabbi. Only men are permitted to take these exams.

The High Court of Justice has ruled in the past that according to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the state is obligated to make a sincere effort to appoint women to panels such as the Turkel Commission, which investigated the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid.


Appointing a female director-general to the rabbinical court system makes sense beyond the need to strive for gender equality. That’s because the court’s mandate is to determine the fate of “chained” women, known as agunot in Hebrew. These are women who are unable to remarry because their husbands refuse to finalize divorce for a variety of reasons, sometimes financial, sometimes personal.

In Jewish law, neither husband nor wife can divorce without mutual consent. And until divorce is finalized remarriage is prohibited. But Halacha is stricter about the prohibition against women because of the stigma surrounding a child born to a woman from extramarital relations.

In any event, women are particularly sensitive to the plight of agunot. It therefore makes sense that if a woman cannot serve as a rabbinic judge, she should at least be allowed to serve as the administrative head of the courts.

One woman who is eminently qualified for the position is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps agunot finalize their divorces in rabbinical courts. Kahana-Dror is intimately familiar with the plight of agunot, is knowledgeable about the workings of the rabbinical courts and has extensive administrative experience as a veteran head of an NGO.

Shortly after Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky stepped down last August as director-general, Kahana-Dror and other women’s rights groups petitioned the High Court against the gender-restrictive criterion in the public tender for the job.

This week the court demanded the state explain by Yom Kippur eve why women cannot present their candidacies.

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein noted that in the 21st century, when women have proven they are men’s intellectual equals in every field, the restriction is anachronistic.

After, however, responsibility for the rabbinical courts was transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, and with Shas MK David Azoulay serving as religious services minister, there is little chance that a woman will be appointed, even if the High Court forces the state to allow women to compete for the post.

Ultimately, the inherent contradiction between Orthodox Judaism and liberal democracy will only be resolved when the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce is dismantled. Until then, Israelis will be captive to Orthodox strictures whether they like it or not.

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