The Rabbinical Court – an entity of its own

In every day life the subject of equality is constantly discussed.

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In every day life the subject of equality is constantly discussed. Equality between races, equality between religious beliefs, and equality between men and women. In the work place these days there is no excuse for unequal treatment between employees and this principle should follow through to all areas of society.
However, this is not the case in one of the most influential establishments in Israel – in the Rabbinical Court. The Rabbinical Court is actually a part of the Justice System of the State of Israel, yet in reality the Rabbinical Court acts as if it is a separate private entity. A number of Rabbinical judges openly admit that they do not rule according to the Laws of the State of Israel and appeals against their decisions in the High Court of Justice are almost never upheld. In fact this means that the State effectively leaves its (female) citizens totally vulnerable – all on their own versus a private, ungoverned entity with high authority at what is in many cases the most important moment of their lives.
For years, almost no one knew what was going on in the rabbinical court because most of their rulings were never publicized or made available. Here, at the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at the Law faculty in Bar- Ilan University we took the initiative and have set out to change that. For the past 9 years we have published what has been going on in the Rabbinical Courts in our esteemed publication , The Law and its Decisor -‘HaDin VeHadayan’ (together with "Yad Laisha" organization). This publication of the rulings of the rabbinical court enables us to have a little insight into what goes on in the rabbinical court and the legal effects this has on family law. Hundreds of people in the legal profession subscribe to this publication and it has become a truly valuable legal resource.
WE HAVE just produced our 30th issue of ‘HaDin VeHadayan,’ focusing entirely on a crucial ongoing problem of the ‘Race to Jurisdiction’. This is the underlying problem with the Law in Israel that states that any issues relating to divorce (property, custody etc) can be decided either in the civil family law court or in the rabbinical court, but that whichever court the case is first filed with deals with the case. This situation causes many serious problems in divorce cases. The most serious issue is the concern from both parties that the other partner will file the case before the other one and thereby gain jurisdiction in the case, leaving no real opportunity to resolve the case peacefully. Likewise, this leads to a debate on whether to hold preliminary discussions for which the courts themselves are struggling with. The aim must be to solve all arguments amicably before they get to court. This Race of jurisdiction must end and it is time that legislation takes initiative to solve this problem.
Another issue is the unique characteristic of the rabbinical court of excluding women. It does not allow women to become the CEO and does not allow female judges – in a service that deals with cases involving women all the time, providing unfair one sided judgments. In any other institution this would be met with uproar. Yet it seems that the State has closed its eyes to this inequality. Anyone realizes that there is absolutely no problem with a woman taking on the position of CEO of the rabbinical courts. This is an administrative-executive job like any other managerial position. This is a state that in its declaration of independence established the principle of equality between women and men alike as one of its fundamental principles so it is clear that the state allows women to compete for this job and it is about time this was followed through here too. Despite this declaration, Israeli law still stipulates that the CEO of the rabbinical courts must be a rabbinical judge or a city rabbi. These are jobs manned exclusively by men and thus blocks any opportunity for women to manage the rabbinical courts. This law clearly discriminates against women –It is about time this was changed.
I am optimistic that in a few years we will not remember that there could ever have been a time when women were prevented from serving as CEO in the rabbinical court. I am sure that one day it will be difficult to imagine rabbinical courts without female judges . The question is though - why is it happening still today? Why is no one changing this now? Let’s not wait and hope for changes in the future. We owe it to ourselves and to our daughters to sort this situation out today for the sake of equal opportunities and basic human rights.
The writer is the Executive Director of the Rackman Center at The Faculty of law, Bar-Ilan university.