The trailblazing advocate

Rachel Levmore has spent decades bridging the worlds of Jewish law, academia and social activism in order to help individuals from all walks of life negotiate the difficult process of Jewish divorce.

Leah Ain Globe Memorial Award 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leah Ain Globe Memorial Award 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I still look at myself as just a girl from Brooklyn,” laughs Dr. Rachel Levmore humbly, sitting down for an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
But that girl has managed some impressive achievements: This past August, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni appointed her to sit on the State Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges – the highest-level position a woman can reach in the country’s religious establishment.
The commission’s work is vital, since in Israel, it is the rabbinical courts that handle all matters of citizens’ personal status, including marriage and divorce.
While in the Diaspora a rabbinical court decision is non-binding, in Israel the civil system has granted these courts the authority to ratify legally binding resolutions under the Rabbinical Courts Law, which was passed in the 1950s.
Levmore, who made aliya from the US 37 years ago and lives with her family in Efrat, has spent decades bridging the worlds of Jewish law, academia and social activism to help individuals from all walks of life negotiate the difficult process of Jewish divorce.
Her appointment followed the passage of a Knesset law this past June obligating the commission to appoint an ordained female rabbinical court advocate – known as a to’enet rabbanit – to sit on the 11-member committee. Levmore qualified.
The to’enet rabbanit, she elaborates, “is a phenomenon unique to Israel, coming about in a society where democracy and Jewish tradition meet.” To put it simply, she explains, “the same way you have civil lawyers, you now have a... lawyer of Halacha.”
Also sitting on the state commission – which until now has been a 10-member, traditionally male-dominated body – are the country’s two chief rabbis, two judges who already sit on the Rabbinical High Court, and pairs of government ministers, MKs and licensed attorneys.
Under the new legal guidelines – which originated as a bill that Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie initiated with Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moallem – not only must a to’enet rabbanit serve as the 11th committee member, there must be at least four spots on the commission reserved for women.
The bill came in response to a lawsuit that women’s rights organizations filed in the Supreme Court over a year and a half ago against the commission and the Justice Ministry, protesting the lack of women representatives on the nominating body.
As a result of the lawsuit, Levmore explains, “the Supreme Court issued an injunction [on the committee’s activities], so no appointments have been made during the last year and a half” to the country’s Rabbinical High Court or to its regional courts. Since during that time judges have retired or have left their positions for other reasons, there has been a void in the system.
As such, she continues, there was “a backlog of cases due to the smaller number of acting rabbinical court judges – both in the Rabbinical High Court and in the regional courts. There just weren’t enough judges to handle the amount of cases, so court sessions weren’t scheduled in a timely manner.”
What this did was delay the resolution of divorce-related disputes, exacerbating the already difficult and often emotionally painful process for the parties involved, she says.
Levmore recounts that she “never applied for the [committee] position”: Following the passage of the law in June, Livni started receiving letters from private individuals and women’s rights organizations recommending Levmore for the post, citing her many years at the forefront of the battle to defend the rights of agunot – “chained” women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, or Jewish writ of divorce.
Levmore’s “day job” is serving as director of the Project for the Prevention of Agunot and Get-Refusal, an initiative of the International Young Israel Movement and the Jewish Agency. She says that since 1996, she has been working to help agunot, sometimes successfully resolving cases “which were deemed hopeless.”
Through individual counseling, publishing popular and academic articles, engaging rabbinic forums in Israel and abroad, and lecturing around the Jewish world, she has actively contributed to the acceptance of prenuptial agreements as a successful preventative tool in the problem of agunot.
She also spent time working in the aguna department of the country’s Rabbinical Court Directorate, advising and counseling thousands of women – both those already trapped in marriages, and those she educated to avoid the situation of get-refusal from the start.
In 2009, she published the book Spare Your Eyes Tears: Prenuptial Agreements for the Prevention of Get Refusal.
The volume has become a resource both in academic circles and among experts in Jewish law, and Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen – the former chief rabbi of Haifa and head judge of the Haifa Rabbinical Court – has referred to it as the “first halachic responsum authored by a woman in Jewish history.” The book also serves as a resource for the Jerusalem-based Ariel Institute, which trains rabbinical court judges.
It’s evident that Levmore, who also holds a PhD in Talmud and Jewish law from Bar-Ilan University, knows her way around rulings on matters of marriage and divorce. In fact, a paper she drafted with two other experts – “The Agreement for Mutual Respect: A Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal” – is a legally binding document in Israel. The parties sign it upon getting married so as to avoid the potential scenario of the woman becoming trapped in the marriage, while also ensuring that she is protected financially in the event of a divorce.
Just before rushing off to the next meeting she has scheduled past business hours – not coincidentally an interview with a rabbi seeking to become a rabbinical court judge – Levmore, who admits that she never realized that sitting on the commission “was going to be this intense,” explains how she decides who is qualified to serve as such a judge.
“I will not recommend somebody until I have met them [personally],” she says. “I want to read their [previous] rulings, see their CV, and speak to them face to face.”
During those interviews, “I go in depth, asking questions about their previous rulings and policies. I also get their halachic stances on cases involving mamzerut [the status of illegitimate children born to a married woman] and conversion. Only after all of that can I make an informed decision.”
For the rabbis she interviews, she adds, “it’s interesting because they have come to meet and talk to a woman. I find it amazing. And specifically because they and I [a man and woman together] enter into indepth halachic discourse.