Women as witnesses: Breaking down barriers


As the Jerusalem Post reported last week, ITIM (Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life) scored a victory on behalf of women’s rights around Israel last week, when the Israeli Chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, agreed to publicize a decision that empowers women to testify in marriage registration bureaus on issues relating to personal status. 
The background to the story is that ITIM’s office received a set of phone calls from brides looking to have their status as single “authenticated.”  According to the protocols of the rabbinate, one cannot be married in Israel without a “statement of singleness” or teudat ravakut.  These documents are generally issued after a bride or groom presents their identity card to the rabbinate and brings two witnesses to substantiate the claim of singleness.
Now the couples who turned to ITIM were seeking to bring female witnesses to the rabbinate.  After looking into the matter, the ITIM staff didn’t see any reason why not- though a survey of a number of rabbinates indicated that most refused to accept women as witnesses.
And here’s the point:  We – in the Orthodox community- have become so regulated in pushing women to the side, that even where there are obvious areas when equality is appropriate, we just assume the answer is no.
Three weeks ago I sent a letter to the head of marriage services at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, asking about the policy of women serving witnesses.  I still haven’t received a response. 
But clearly my letter was circulated.  A couple of days after the letter was sent, I got a call from a highly placed rabbi (in a government position) asking me for my fax number. “I think you’ll want to see this” he said. 
He then faxed me the protocols of the Chief Rabbi’s council from last January, in which the council had passed a decision to allow women to testify – at least for purposes of ravakut
The decision was probably buried, as it was made at a time when hadrat nashim (excluding women) was the burning issue of the day.  By the time the decision was written down, there was no longer a “need” for it, and it disappeared… until last week.
Following the Jerusalem Post story, Rabbi Metzger and I appeared on Army radio and he made a commitment to all marriage registrars that they are to accept women as witnesses- for purposes of ravakut.
I’m glad in this case, we let the cat out of the bag.