Battling the rabbinate’s bias against women

Bias backed by politicians and lobbyists who care more about coalition politics than gender equality.

Haredi bus protest with women 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi bus protest with women 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The most substantial bias against women that exists today in Israel is perpetrated by the country’s chief rabbinate, with the backing of politicians and lobbyists, both secular and religious, who care more about coalition politics than the full and equal participation of women in public life.
A Jewish woman today has no ability whatsoever to directly influence the rabbinate and its various branches, is barred from decision making posts in the Religious Services Ministry and is excluded from the country’s religious councils. The best a woman can hope for currently is to be able to give a minority opinion on which male rabbinic judges will be named to serve in Israel’s religious court system, which has authority over marriage and divorce, among other things.
Some might object to this characterization, saying that Judaism has deep respect for women and their rights. However, the fact is that the type of Judaism to which the government has given a monopoly over Jewish custom and tradition in the state – namely the Orthodox type – might revere women, but only when they know their place. And that place, in the the rabbinic system governing Israel, is no better than that of a child; to be seen and maybe sometimes heard, but never to be given authority to decide what is best for them.
This systemic bias pervades the political system in Israel, right to the very top. Over the 63 years of the state’s existence, the Religious Services Ministry, which financially supports and bureaucratically controls the rabbinate, has been under the power of the all-male ultra-Orthodox parties, which do not let women vote or serve as Members of Knesset.
Those women who are appointed by official bodies to oversee the choice of religious judges (who by current definition can only be men), are a token at best, so these bodies can be spun as being representative. The reality in Israel is that women, whether religious or secular, are barred by law from influencing decisions concerning government policy that directly and immediately impacts their lives.
Recently, the women of the Emuna organization petitioned the Supreme Court to demand equal representation on the committee to appoint religious judges, citing the requirement for equal representation of women on government committees. It was a nice gesture, but it obscures the fact that the glass ceiling is so thick that women need to beg just to press their faces against it. The reality is that women can currently protest all they want, but at the end of the day, according to the current institutions of the State of Israel, only a man can serve as judge and jury in some of the most sensitive moments of a citizen’s life.
The Knesset must work to change this segregated reality, and Jewish women around the world need to lend a hand to support those groups that are working to crack the glass ceiling in Israel. This is essential because women in the State of Israel today can be married only by men, can be divorced only with the consent of a male judge, and are therefore by law at the mercy of men when it comes to their personal status and liberty.
As long as there is no religious freedom in Israel, women’s rights will relegated to the back of the political bus. This dark reality will continue so long as women remain silent, so long as the Knesset finds it more expedient to build a coalition around ultra-Orthodoxy’s denial of women’s equality, so long as the Diaspora continues to support yeshivot and seminaries and major Jewish institutions that provide the power base for the religious establishment to maintain its grip on civil society in Israel.
If we want to break through this glass ceiling, and ensure women’s equality in the Jewish state, we must act quickly to change the structure of the rabbinate, to strengthen requirements for equal representation in all governmental bodies, and to make the bold statement that the Jewish People do not permit men to have sole authority over the lives of women.
The writer is CEO of PresenTense Israel. She previously served as CEO of the Israel Women’s Network.