Women now have more rights in Rabbinical Courts, but more must be done

In an historic decision, the High Court ruled that a woman could be chosen for a high administrative post in the Rabbinical Courts.

The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Amid the lingering controversy over the government’s mishandling issues of religious freedom at the Western Wall and conversion to Judaism, the High Court of Justice last week brought the citizens of Israel one small step closer on the road to equality.
In an historic decision, the court ruled that a woman could be chosen for a high administrative post in the Rabbinical Courts.
The 2014 petition that led to the decision was filed by Mavoi Satum (Dead End), whose director was denied consideration for the post. Director and attorney Batya Kahana-Dror’s candidacy for the position of Rabbinical Courts chief administrator was ignored by the male rabbis because she is a woman.
The court ruled that a combination of the Rabbinical Courts, the Religious Services Ministry and the State Attorney’s Office had failed to create updated eligibility criteria that did not discriminate against women. “The absence of equal representation in the Rabbinical Courts has stood out for a long time,” the justices said in declaring a set of eligibility criteria and canceling criteria that led to discrimination.
Under to the new rules, a religiously observant female lawyer or a woman who is a recognized Rabbinical Court’s litigator can submit her candidacy for the top position after practicing in the courts for seven years.
Mavoi Satum lauded the decision as an “historic jump forward in the area of religion and state, and an important achievement in the struggle for the rights of women in the Rabbinical Court system.”
But don’t hold your breath, as there is still no guarantee that the Rabbinical Courts will select a woman for the top administrative position. The court’s ruling governs a woman’s right to be considered for candidacy, not right to be chosen by the all-male rabbis.
Affirmative action is as likely a policy as is egalitarian worship to the rabbinate’s outdated mind set. Some women’s activists are reasonably concerned that the Rabbinical Courts will either find a clever way to block women candidacies or simply not select them on principle.
In terms of reality testing, it should be noted that the decision allows women to administrate the Rabbinical Courts, but it does not permit them to become Rabbinical Court judges, no matter how highly qualified. The chief administrator manages human resources, budgeting and operations issues, but does not decide on issues of Jewish law.
There are much more pressing religious issues before the High Court, which will hear the combined lawsuits of Women of the Wall, the Masorti and Reform movements and other women’s groups in another 11 days. As Bonnie Riva Ras wrote in these pages, “The reactions of world Jewry to these events should have taught Netanyahu and his coalition MKs that... when you make a promise that ‘the Kotel belongs to all Jews’ and that ‘Israel is the homeland of all Jews,’ and you renege it sends a very important message that liberal Jews are not welcome In Israel.”
The declared disparagement by the ultra-Orthodox members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition for Reform Jews whether in Israel or the Diaspora is the tail that wags the dog that tries to govern the State of Israel.
Until enough of our citizenry overcomes its social inertia and this attitude changes, nothing can be done politically to rein in the disproportionate power that Netanyahu gave the haredi parties in his coalition.
The backward-moving trend of the government after the long-negotiated and cabinet-approved deal was so misguidedly frozen has persisted, as the haredi MKs also pushed the proposed conversion law that would give them the right to decide who is a Jew and who can make aliya.
This latest crude attempt by the ultra-Orthodox to grab even more power would effectively change the Law of Return in their reactionary image. This dire and unintended consequence must be avoided – and the fact that this is not even a topic of public debate is a dangerous indication that the public is asleep on guard duty.
In the meantime, we wholeheartedly agree with what Kahana-Dror said following last week’s unprecedented High Court decision: “We happily welcome the entrance of a women to the male pantheon of the Rabbinical Courts, but see this as merely the first achievement in our struggle to have a female director appointed and further ahead even the appointment of female rabbinical judges.”