Compel the rabbinical courts to include women

It is inconceivable that, in a court that adjudicates for both men and women, only men are allowed to judge.

The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An important and meaningful step was taken a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court decided to permit the appointment of a woman as deputy director general of the rabbinical courts, following a petition submitted by several women’s organizations (Mavoi Satum, WIZO, and NA’AMAT). This is a first step which will allow integrating women as judges in the rabbinical courts.
In recent years, women have not flourished in meaningful and important roles in the rabbinical courts; rather, their position is under constant attack.
While the Sharia courts have selected a woman for a judicial position, the rabbinical courts have hardened their patriarchal stance.
Even when a position is administrative rather than judicial, meaning that there is a broad halachic consensus that it is permissible for a woman to fill the role, we still find ourselves in an extended struggle to allow women in these roles. In 2014, I introduced a bill, along with MK Aliza Lavie and MK Shulamit Mualem-Refaeli, which passed into law, mandating the representation of women on the selection committee for rabbinical judges. The bill passed only because the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties were not in the coalition, and the current Knesset has already taken steps to undo the law.
Accordingly, the bill I proposed to permit the appointment of women to the position of deputy director general of the rabbinical courts – again, an administrative rather than a judicial position – did not pass. While the Sharia courts have opened up to the 21st century and accept that discrimination against women is unacceptable and illegal, the coalition is preparing to pass legislation to further expand the male-dominant authority of the rabbinical courts.
The power of the rabbinical courts is now backed by the coalition, which views itself as dependent on haredi parties and is prepared to allow them to trample on our rights. Women today are forced to fight for representation and equal opportunities at work, even when halachic limitations are not involved.
This pattern has repeated itself since the dawn of time: men who prefer to keep power in the hands of men.
It’s not enough that all of us – whether secular, Reform, or Conservative – are forced to use courts that rely on law formulated some 3,000 years ago and based on discrimination against women. We are also forced into a system in which we are surrounded by men, who rule in favor of other men and explain to us that this is for our own good. It is time to stop this nonsense.
There is now a golden opportunity for women to seek positions in the courts.
Let’s see them refuse.
Judge Menachem Eilon, who served as deputy president of the Supreme Court and was also an expert in mishpat ivri (“Hebrew law,” Halacha that focuses on civil issues) stated 30 years ago that there is no reason to oppose a woman serving as a judge, citing as an example Deborah the Prophetess, who served as a judge according to the Book of Judges.
It is inconceivable that 30 years later, in a court that adjudicates for both men and women, only men are allowed to judge.
It is embarrassing that these women’s organizations had to go to the Supreme Court for this verdict. The decision, a first step in appointing female judges to the rabbinical courts, is an additional crack in the absolute power of the men in the rabbinate. It brings us slightly closer to the end of the monopoly of the rabbinate, which is controlled by a small and non-representative group that has hijacked Judaism from all of us and turned it into a political tool.
It is important to say that until a true alternative to the rabbinate exists in Israel, there will not be true equality between the genders. Women will continue to pay the price of the political groveling to the haredi parties and rabbis who want to keep us all in the 16th century. Until there is a true alternative, it is necessary to compel the chauvinistic and misogynistic system of rabbinical courts to include women, so that our voices can also be heard.
The author is a Member of Knesset and Chairperson of Meretz.