Injudicious choice

Adding a new haredi cadre to adjudicate proceedings will only worsen Orthodox and non-orthodox divide.

ovadia yosef looks down  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ovadia yosef looks down
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Gaping chasms in the Jewish world are hardly new. Yet the appointment Monday of new rabbinical judges (dayanim) will add to this dissension. The selection of 12 additional haredi judges (out of 15) is likely to broaden rather than narrow the existing gaps produced by an already overly conservative system. Though some divisions are inherently unavoidable, the aim of anyone with the future of the Jewish nation and faith at heart - regardless of his/her own persuasions - should be to encourage compromise rather than foment discord. This is precisely what's wrong with what the committee charged with designating judges produced. Adding a new haredi cadre to adjudicate proceedings between mainly non-haredi parties (haredi communities resort to their own sectarian courts rather than the Chief Rabbinate's institutions) will exacerbate the alienation between modern Orthodox and non-orthodox litigants and their presiding judges. Worse yet is the fact that this results from political machinations and maneuvering rather than inescapable demographic realities. The appointments committee, headed by the justice minister, comprises the two chief rabbis, two rabbinical high court members, two MKs and two Bar Association representatives. Over the past decade, this committee has been evenly split between haredim and others. That tie was broken when the coalition appointed Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin to the panel, tipping the scales in favor of the haredim. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann was warned not to convene the committee (as his predecessors had avoided doing) so as not to facilitate a haredi takeover of rabbinical courts. The expectation was that Friedmann - an outspoken advocate of reform, a former Shinui activist and one who had himself criticized the situation in the rabbinical court system - would emulate previous justice ministers. To the dismay of a gamut of opinion that ranged from religious Zionists to the non-Orthodox, Friedmann failed to prevent haredi hegemony at a crucial junction in relations between the mainly non-Orthodox public and the Orthodox legal system. Not only was unacceptable politicization apparent in the choice of dayanim, but nepotism was rampant. Many new appointees are relatives of Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or of his close associates. Rabbinical courts could well become the private bailiwick of Yosef and Ashkenazi haredi mentor Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv. This wouldn't only reinforce the courts' already pronounced conservatism but could easily trigger a reactionary trend that might compromise the chances - if not actually dash the hopes - of women compelled to avail themselves of the courts in matters such as divorce. Women thus far denied divorces are less likely to receive fair hearings from rabbis so remote from the country's mainstream. Not only divorces come under the rabbinical courts' jurisdiction. Dayanim rule on a whole array of issues, including child custody, child support payments, property settlements and conversions. When judges and their public don't share the same idiom and cultural frames of reference, disaffection can quickly emerge. Women already feel they are not getting a fair shake in rabbinical courts. The admission of even less liberal judges - all appointed for life - isn't going to allay their apprehensions. Regarding conversion, the new judges are likely to take a more restrictive attitude, just as other rabbis have justifiably and belatedly been promoting a more permissive approach. The failure to facilitate the conversion of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who have become citizens under the Law of Return and wish to integrate fully into Israeli society is an embarrassment to the Jewish state - one that should be rectified, not made worse. This new turn in the religious court system will not bolster age-old traditions, but cause defections from Jewish tradition. The modern world offers choices, and if too many segments of the population feel disenfranchised, they will opt out. The ultimate loser will be Judaism, the Jewish nature of the state, and the Jewishness of Israel's citizenry. The Chief Rabbinate was established after Israel's birth to prevent just such developments. Overzealousness that irreparably tears the country's Jewish fabric is not merely injudicious - it is tragic.