A historic decision on female inclusion in rabbinical courts?

While a recent ruling by the High Court now permits women to head Israel's rabbinical court system, it doesn't actually mean a woman will get the job.

The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last month the High Court of Justice ruled that women are allowed to fill the role of director-general of the rabbinical courts system. The decision was given as a response to the appeal submitted by attorney Batya Kahana- Dror, and the organizations Mavoi Satum, Na’amat and Wizo.
Beyond this legal achievement in the struggle for the advancement of equality for women, the question remains: What are the chances that one day a woman will actually be appointed to head Israel’s rabbinical court system? The driving force behind this breakthrough was Kahana-Dror, 50, an Orthodox religious woman and the director of Mavoi Satum, which fights discrimination against women in the rabbinic courts.
“Three years ago, I applied for the position of director-general of the religious courts,” Kahana-Dror says, “but it turns out they never even considered my candidacy on the grounds that this is a religious position and therefore is not open to women. In response, I petitioned the High Court of Justice. We are dealing with an extremely complex reality.
In its current form, the law enables the court to discriminate against women in religious positions, such as city rabbis and dayanim [rabbinical court judges].”
The rabbis claimed that the position of director-general was a religious position, and not an administrative one?
“They tried to claim this, but the attorney-general ruled that the director- general is an administrative position.”
How important is it that this position be filled by a woman?
“Extremely, for two reasons. First, the High Court ruling forces the rabbinic courts to offer equal rights to women, which will strengthen the public’s trust in the rabbinic courts. Second, the director-general has a tremendous amount of power and can wield it over the court.
“The rabbinical court administration manages the department of agunot (women whose husbands have refused to grant them a divorce), which decides whether or not to send an emissary to search for a husband who has abandoned his wife or to hire a private investigator.
Many times, the court pressures women to sign agreements if they want to receive a get [writ of divorce].
“There are cases in which the court does not go after men who’ve fled and left their wives as agunot, sometimes for decades. The technical administration has a strong influence on the character of the court. Women who are interested in divorcing their husbands need to bring proof that they are entitled to receive a get. This is not always possible. In many cases, the rabbinic court closes cases due to lack of proof. Moreover, I know exactly what constitutes proof, and what criteria women need to fulfill in order to receive a get. Many women who’ve been denied by the court for years would be able to do this quite well.”
What’s the likelihood that you’ll be appointed director-general?
“There’s no doubt that I will be appointed; they will need to take my position seriously. I meet all the necessary criteria. Of course, this is a position that has been historically filled by men, but they will have to demonstrate that a male candidate truly is more qualified than I am.
“There are a number of women who are qualified for the position. I intend to submit cases to the High Court so that women will be appointed as dayanot. It’s unacceptable that 50% of the people using the rabbinate’s services are women, but there’s not even one female rabbinical court judge. I am working so that women can be appointed city rabbis, too.”
The High Court ruling will have to be adapted to the current reality, though. In other words, one of the current dayanim will have to give up his spot and his power if someone new is to be appointed.
“In my opinion, the dayanim will not change their basic stance – that women cannot fill these positions,” says attorney Moriah Dayan, 41. Dayan is a rabbinical advocate (similar to a lawyer in a civil court) who works for the non-profit Yad L’isha, which assists agunot and women who’ve been refused a get.
“Their values have not changed because of the High Court ruling, which means that if a woman is not appointed at some point, we’ll meet once again at the High Court.”
Do you think the dayanim will try to put a spoke in the wheel?
“Well, it’s not going to be plain sailing, that’s for sure,” says Dayan. “Take a look, for example, at what happened with the female rabbinical advocates.
Some 22 years ago, the High Court forced the rabbinate to let women take the test to become advocates. This position has technically been open to women for 20 years now, but in actuality, there are only 40 women rabbinical advocates. The year I took the course, 16 women began it, but only three of us completed it. The requirements are quite difficult, and many women prefer to study civil law, since this expands their employment options immensely.”
On the other hand, the rabbinate is obligated to actively appoint a woman.
“The ruling says that the minister has been given the task of actively finding a female candidate who is appropriate to manage the rabbinical court. He is required to take the necessary steps to locate such a person,” says Dayan. “On the other hand, they’ll always be able to find a man with more years of experience.”
Even the Muslim Shari’a courts appoint women.
“They have no religious impediment stopping them. There’s no law saying that a kadi must be a man,” explains Dayan. “In Jewish law it’s different. But I’m optimistic – I think the change will come from outside.
“There are women who are devoting their entire lives to the teaching of Torah and Halacha. Many Orthodox synagogues have hired female religious leaders to work alongside their rabbis. In the end, there will also be women religious rabbinical advocates, like the prophetess Deborah.”
Maybe the change will come with the creation of an alternate rabbinate?
“Alongside the official kashrut and conversion authorities, alternative systems are being developed,” says Dayan.
“In a similar fashion, private initiatives are being carried out for matters of marriage and divorce. Many of the people using these alternative services are Orthodox Jews who adhere to Halacha, but who aren’t interested in interpreting the laws in strictest way possible, as is the norm today.
“It took the High Court three years to rule on this issue. At first, it passed the buck back to the Knesset and requested that a solution be found in the parliament.
In the meantime, the court gave a directive that a woman be appointed as deputy director of the rabbinate.
“The Religious Affairs Ministry wrote a draft that was supposed to have created an alternative arrangement that would allow a woman to be appointed, but it turned out that the document was of no help. It set unrealistic stipulations, such as that candidates needed to pass tests in addition to the ones administered by the courts, which would be written and checked by the director-general of the rabbinate.
“This addition was not accepted, since no other administrative position in the civil service requires candidates to meet additional criteria after they’ve already been accepted for a position. It was clear that all the female candidates were being filtered out.”
One of the people who ran the Knesset Constitution Committee meetings was MK Revital Swid of the Zionist Union. Swid also happened to be a member of the committee that appointed dayanim.
“In theory, we should have been able to welcome this decision,” says Swid, “but to my great dismay, the government once again failed to regulate this social issue and bring about gender equality. The High Court was forced to do this for us instead.”
Is the High Court in effect helping the government on this issue?
“On the one hand, we have a government that is attacking the rule of law, and on the other hand, the government is happy that the High Court pulled their chestnuts out of the fire,” says Swid.
Why weren’t you able to solve this issue within the committee? “The Religious Affairs Ministry presented us with the most ridiculous document. It was outright manipulation.
It was completely obvious that no woman, regardless of her qualifications, was ever going to meet their criteria, which included additional exams,” Swid says.
Will that situation change now?
“The rabbinic courts serve the entire Jewish public. It is the only institution that can grant a get. This authority is not limited only to couples who were married according to Halacha, but also to couples who had a civil wedding,” explains Swid. “In light of this, it’s extremely important that the public have faith in this institution, and the appointment of a female director-general and deputy director would help increase public faith in the rabbinate immensely.
“We still have a long road ahead of us and nothing revolutionary has taken place, despite this historic decision. Step by step, we will reach our goal.”