Riskin urges religious-Zionist courts

Efrat rabbi slams haredi appointments, calls for judges who will help agunot.

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The rabbinic court system must offer alternate judicial services not under the auspices of the haredi establishment, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said Thursday in response to the appointment Tuesday of 15 new judges to the rabbinic courts, 12 of whom were haredi. "After this week's selection of an inordinate number of haredi judges, many of whose chief qualifications were family relationships, I call for an alternative court of religious-Zionist, modern Orthodox judges who will include love of Israel together with concern for the purity of Israel and will express the principle of 'for the sake of preventing agunot. [women trapped in a marriage by Jewish law] our law finds leniencies,'" Riskin told a conference dealing with the Israeli constitution in Jerusalem on Thursday. "The situation is horrific," Riskin told The Jerusalem Post Thursday regarding the problems rabbinic court judges face, including the fate of agunot and conversions for the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish olim in Israel. "The question is what you are mostly concerned about," he maintained. "Are you mostly concerned about the purity of Israel, afraid of a forced get [divorce certificate given by the husband] that may not be legitimate? Or are you equally concerned about the aguna herself, who is being held up by a husband with an unfair advantage in Jewish law?" The problem, Riskin believes, is not one of halacha. "The Talmud again and again gives all sorts of leniencies to help women in such a situation," he noted, "but most judges do not implement those leniencies. Very often they don't have the psychological sympathies [needed to do so]. It's a parallel situation with conversion, where very often the judges insist on a haredi - not merely religious - lifestyle [for the aspiring convert]. These are roadblocks at a time when there shouldn't be roadblocks." Riskin has begun gathering together a group of supportive religious-Zionist rabbis to ask Israel's Chief Rabbinate to recognize a separate religious-Zionist rabbinic court system, as was done in the past with the haredi Badatz system. If the Chief Rabbinate, loyal to haredi leaders Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, refuses to sanction the new court system, Riskin said he would "very likely" turn to the High Court of Justice. "But I don't want to think about that," he emphasized, confident that the Chief Rabbinate and the official courts will agree to sanction the new court system. But Dr. Benjamin Brown, an expert on haredi thought at the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University, disagreed. "The [official] courts won't agree to this," he told the Post, since "unlike with the Badatz [haredi court system], this system would take away from their authority." Brown believes the new system's chief problem will be the enforcement of sanctions imposed by its courts, such as jail time for get-withholding husbands. "Sanctions by Badatz are enforced informally by the families and communities [of those involved]," he said, while those that cannot be so enforced are ratified by the state rabbinic courts, making them enforceable by Israeli law. Religious Zionism has long seen state institutions as sacred, part of the sanctity of the state itself. Would the religious Zionist sector agree to a court system that is not an official organ of the State of Israel? Possibly, said Rabbi Yisrael Samet, a prominent community rabbi in Lod and who is close to former MK Rabbi Haim Druckman. "There is already today a system of religious courts among the religious-Zionists,dealing with financial matters," he noted, saying "many people prefer to turn to them because they are more efficient - and hopefully just - than the state rabbinic courts and even the state civil courts." This reflects a change in the views of the religious Zionist public regarding state institutions. "The idea of privatizing part of the services of the [state] rabbinate is an old idea," Samet said. Now, he added, "the view [in religious Zionism] that sanctifies the institutions of the state - as with other forms of opposition to other kinds of privatization - has undergone a change."