And now, appointing the chief rabbis...

"MKs have had to work quickly to change the current lack of 'proper representation' of women in a state body."

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The members of the 19th Knesset seem to have made a conscious decision not only to instill “new politics,” as they put it, in Israel – but “new rabbinics” as well.
First, in early March, MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and MK Shuli Muallem (Bayit Yehudi) proposed a bill which would ensure that four out of 11 members of the State Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges will be women. This would ensure that although women do not serve as rabbinical judges, they would have influence in determining who those judges would be.
Following that proposed legislation, no less than six MKs – led by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) and joined by MK Rabbi Shai Piron (Yesh Atid), MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), MK David Tsur (Hatnua), MK Uri Orbach (Bayit Yehudi) and MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) – initiated another bill meant to have a formative effect on the rabbinate. This time, the focus is on the Chief Rabbinate.
Technically speaking, there are two chief rabbis of the State of Israel – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi. The Chief Rabbinate holds authority over diverse religious services administered by the state: kashrut, circumcisions, officiating at marriages, rabbinic ordination, qualification of rabbinic judges and city rabbis, marriage registrars, directives to local rabbis, authority over holy sites, etc. A crucial, powerful position held, sequentially, by the chief rabbis is that of president of the High Rabbinical Court – the same state rabbinical court which holds sole jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish citizens or residents in Israel.
While one serves in that position, the other serves as head of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. All these functions ultimately affect all the Jewish citizens of Israel. Moreover, beyond the listing of official responsibilities lies the influence through religious leadership that the two chief rabbis carry, over the Israeli public and by extension, over the Jewish world at large.
Although the constituency of the chief rabbis is divided evenly between both men and women, intrinsically the composition of the rabbinate is solely male. However, there is no such inherent need in the appointment process of the chief rabbis. It is in the body which determines the chief rabbis that 100 percent of the population should be able to impact.
Based on the Chief Rabbinate Law, 1980, the two chief rabbis are to be elected every 10 years by an assembly of 150 delegates, 80 of whom, comprising over 50%, are male rabbis (including members of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate). The remaining 70 delegates are made up of representatives of the public (including: mayors, religious council heads and members, heads and members of regional councils and the like). Of those, the prime minister and the Knesset are to appoint 17 of the delegates before the assembly convenes (two ministers, five MKs and 10 additional representatives of the public).
To date, not counting those 17 delegates which have not yet been determined, there is one sole woman member of this assembly – Mayor Miriam Feinberg of Netanya. Even if the prime minister and the Knesset were to appoint 17 women, which is unlikely, the principle of gender equality in state bodies would still be far out of reach.
As elections for the post of the two chief rabbis are to be held this June, MKs have had to work quickly to change the current lack of “proper representation” of women in a state body. Fortunately for them, there have been women’s organizations who have paved the way. Last June, the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women in Bar-Ilan University led a total of five women’s organizations in drawing attention to this inequity through a letter to Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein. Basing themselves on the Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951, the Center clarified the lack of adherence to the law in the establishment of the assembly for the election of the chief rabbis.
Pointing out the inherent imbalance due to the reserving of delegates’ positions for males, as all rabbis and most mayors are male, the legal experts advised that all appointees by governmental bodies should be women.
The MKs’ proposal went further as it attempts to fulfill the goal of gender proportionality to a certain measure of success. Through a multiplicity of clauses, the clarification of ambiguous points in the original law and mathematical functions the bill minimizes (but does not totally eliminate) the significant majority granted by the original law to the bloc of rabbis. The process of electing the two rabbis has been more democratized, albeit maintaining the innate limitations due to the structure of the Israeli rabbinate itself.
The number of delegates to the assembly has been increased to 200 (from the original 150), with 105 rabbis and 95 public envoys – adding female representatives of women’s organizations and female rabbinical court advocates or lawyers. Among the public representatives 32 to 35 delegates must be women according to the proposed amendment. In fact, aside from the specific instructions to the individual public bodies to ensure gender equality among their delegates, clause 9 of the bill stipulates that “all the appointing and advisory bodies are required to bring about a minimum of 25% representation for each of the two genders in the elective assembly.” (Clearly the phrase “each of the two genders” is a politically correct euphemism as men are guaranteed a 52.5% majority due to the 105 rabbis who are delegates.) In addition, the qualifications for the job of chief rabbi were sharpened in the proposed bill.Keeping in mind that the man who serves in this crucial post is not only to be a religious leader well versed in academic study of Torah but actually is there to serve the public in complex situations, the new law requires that a candidate has to have at least five years experience serving as a rabbinical court judge plus qualification as a chief rabbi of a municipality or vice versa. (This would eliminate some of the present contenders for the position.) The appointment of the Israeli chief rabbis affords a once-in-a-decade opportunity to create a global community of Jews, inclusive of all Jews: more observant and less so; women and men; progressively inclined or conservative; multi-generational; searching for self-identity or totally committed; Israeli and Diaspora Jewry; Hebrew speakers or not. In short – chief rabbis are needed who can represent and connect to the entirety of the community in all its typically Jewish complexity. The very least the public can expect is to choose them in a democratic fashion.
This proposed legislation is a significant step toward realizing that goal.
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Agunah and Get- Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect”; and a member of ICAR.