Editorial: A woman’s place

Shas will be victorious, agunot will be the losers, and yet another example will be provided of the destructive effects of mixing religion with politics.

rape victim illustrative 311 (photo credit: John L. White / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / MCT)
rape victim illustrative 311
(photo credit: John L. White / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / MCT)
In the coming days, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, in consultation with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, will choose a new administrative head for the rabbinical court system.
A qualified woman should be given a fair chance at the job. But due to Israel’s problematic mixture of religion and politics, which often leads to appointments guided more by political efficacy than the better good, there is little hope of this happening.
Rabbinic courts, which rule in accordance with Halacha, have exclusive jurisdiction over all Jewish divorces. (Druse, Muslims and Christians have their own divorce courts.) Central to the role of the courts is their power to determine the fate of “chained” women, known as agunot in Hebrew. These are women whose recalcitrant husbands refuse, for a variety of reasons – sometimes economic, sometimes personal – to finalize their divorces.
Under Jewish law, neither husband nor wife can divorce without mutual consent, though Halacha is more strict about the need for the husband’s consent.
And since monetary issues are often a major obstacle to completing divorce proceedings, men, who tend to be the primary breadwinner and own most of the couple’s combined assets, are more likely to be the cause of delay.
Also, a child born to a woman from extra-marital relations – known as a mamzer or bastard – is prohibited by Jewish law from marrying anyone but another mamzer. A mamzer’s offspring retain the same pariah status and pass it on to their offspring ad infinitum.
In contrast, a man who fathers a child out of wedlock transmits no such blemish, according to Halacha.
As a result, women – especially religious and traditional- minded women who attach significance to religious decrees – suffer much more than men from this state of limbo. It is only natural that a woman would be more sensitive to the plight of agunot.
THE HIGH Court recently ruled that according to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the state is obligated to make a sincere effort to appoint a woman to bodies such as the Turkel Commission, which is charged with investigating the fateful May 31 IDF interception of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. The imperative for this kind of effort is all the more important regarding the appointment of an administrative head for the rabbinical courts.
However, the rabbinic powers that be, in complete disregard for gender equality protected by the State of Israel’s Basic Law, have adopted a criterion that effectively excludes women: All candidates for the position must be ordained rabbinical judges or city rabbis.
This criterion is seemingly designed to keep women out. Why must one be a rabbi or rabbinical judge to serve in a purely administrative position? There is no dearth of women who are well versed in divorce law, both halachic and secular, and have the requisite managerial skills as well as a women’s special sensitivity to the agunot problem. Several women’s rights organizations have already petitioned the High Court to intervene and ensure that qualified women receive the basic courtesy of serious consideration.
Attorney Atara Kenigsberg, executive director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, is precisely such a woman. Undeterred by the gender-restrictive criterion published in the public tenders for the job, which scared away most women, Kenigsberg, intimately familiar with the plight of agunot, knowledgeable about the workings of the rabbinical courts and with extensive managerial experience, has already been shortlisted by a five-member search committee, which, thanks to Supreme Court intervention, includes a woman – attorney Batsheva Sherman.
But Kenigsberg knows better than to entertain false hopes. When Amar and Neeman sit down to choose the new administrative head, they will undoubtedly be guided primarily by political considerations, rather than the best interests of agunot.
Shas, the largest religious party in the government coalition, with close ties to Amar and a political platform that rejects women as MKs, is expected to have crucial influence over the key appointment.
Shas will score a major victory. Agunot will be the primary losers. And yet another example will be provided of the destructive effects of mixing religion with politics.