High Court: Diversify selection panels for city rabbis

Rights organization claims appointment process to the committees is undemocratic and not free and fair.

Israeli Supreme Court 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/FILE)
Israeli Supreme Court 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/FILE)
The High Court of Justice issued an injunction on Wednesday demanding that the Religious Services Ministry examine ways to create broader societal representation on selection committees for municipal rabbis. The ruling stated that the ministry must inform the court of its deliberations within 60 days.
In a petition filed to the court, Ne’emanei Torah VeAvoda, a religious rights organization, claimed that the appointment process to the committees is undemocratic and not free and fair.
According to the group, there is little real representation of the non-religious community on the selection committees.
Only 25 percent of representatives on municipal rabbi selection committees are from the city council, the elected representatives of the city. Another 25% is are drawn from local religious councils and the remaining 50% is made up of representatives from synagogues in the city. The synagogues’ legal power, the petition states, is not recognized in any other aspect of Israeli law but here is double that of the city’s elected representatives.
Ne’emanei Torah VeAvoda, a national-religious organization, claimed in its petition that the relative lack of influence of the city’s elected representatives is “invalid and contravenes basic democratic principles.” The group also claims that the majority of representatives on the selection committees are either direct or indirect associates of the religious services minister, currently Ya’acov Margi of Shas.
According to Asaf Ben- Melech, an attorney who worked on the petition, the non-religious residents of a city are the ones most in need of a municipal rabbi, since they generally don’t have personal connections with community rabbis. In contrast, the state argues that those who attend synagogue services and are more religiously inclined are influenced by the work and services of the city rabbi to a greater extent than less religious residents.
“Secular city residents marry according to Jewish law, divorce according to Jewish law, are buried according to Jewish law, and are affected by the allocation of kashrut licenses in their city,” a spokesman for the group said. “In all these points of contact non-religious residents have with Jewish law, the city rabbi establishes the quality of service they receive.”
The group points to instances in many cities during the most recent shmita, or agricultural sabbatical year, from 2007-8, when municipal rabbis refused to grant kashrut licenses to restaurants that made use of a leniency in Jewish law permitting the use of produce grown in Israel during that year.
The organization argued that rabbis chosen in a more democratic manner would be more attuned to the needs of city residents.
The phenomenon of city rabbis refusing to allow women to give eulogies at the funerals of relatives is also something which would be reduced if the selection process was fairer, the petition argues.
In the High Court’s ruling, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote that “no one can deny that the process [for selecting municipal rabbis] provides greater weight to those who attend synagogues,” and demanded that the Religious Services Ministry examine how to change the balance to allow the general public to have greater influence.
In response, the Religious Services Ministry said it is consulting with its legal department in order to formulate its reaction to the ruling.