Raising the bar

The Chief Rabbbinate remains a corrupt institution, but one making small steps of progress.

File photo: Divorce. (photo credit: REUTERS)
File photo: Divorce.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Chief Rabbi David Lau should be commended for raising the bar for being qualified as a rabbinic judge or municipal rabbi.
Lau’s suggestion – which is such a no-brainer it’s surprising it took nearly 70 years for the Chief Rabbinate to introduce it – calls to disqualify any candidate who has refused his own wife a get or Jewish writ of divorce.
Recalcitrant husbands who have refused to cooperate with divorce proceedings, either out of spite or as a means of putting pressure on their wives to give up financial benefits or child custody rights, have been a problem for as long as Jews have divorced.
Women who are the victims of these spiteful husbands are known as agunot or “chained” women.
Under Jewish law, they are unable to get remarried until they settle divorce proceedings for their previous marriage.
Until now such men, who reject a rabbinic court recommendation or order to give a get have not been disqualified. This is surprising since the vast majority of cases heard by rabbinic judges deal with divorce.
We don’t want men who are themselves criminals in the field of divorce to be adjudicating for others.
In Israel, all marriages and divorces are governed by Jewish law. Therefore, Jewish couples who married in Israel must go through the Chief Rabbinate if they want to put an end to their marriage. But it turns out that the judges who preside over these cases could very well be guilty of transgressing the Halacha themselves.
Lau pointed out that this is out of line with the official requirements in the Regulations for Rabbinical Judges that call on prospective judges’ lifestyles and characters to be commensurate with that of a rabbinic judge in Israel.
We agree.
Even a cursory look at the Bible reveals the high standard expected of the Jewish judge.
“You shall provide out of all the people, able men, who fear God, men of truth, disdaining unjust gain, and place them over [the people]” God tells Moshe in Exodus 18.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy it says, “Take from each of your tribes, wise men, with understanding and full of knowledge, and I will make them your leaders.”
Even in divorce cases, judges have a tremendous amount of power. They decide which parent receives custody rights, the level of financial support to be paid and whether the couple should be divorced or should first try counseling. Ideally, the most upright, impeccable people should be chosen for the position, not those who have themselves proven to be recalcitrant and spiteful.
In fact, additional criteria should be added. A few years ago, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Otniel, said that reckless drivers and smokers should be disqualified to serve as witnesses in rabbinical courts or in Jewish weddings, just as pork-eating, Shabbat desecrating Jews are. He argued that anyone who intentionally endangers his life or the life of others – whether on the road or as a result of an addiction – is not suited to be a witness. This should hold doubly true for a man who aspires to serve as a judge with the responsibility for making fateful decisions with far-reaching ramifications for the lives of people.
The Chief Rabbinate is tasked with regulating matters of Jewish religion in Israel. It is embarrassing that until Rabbi Lau came along, men who themselves were guilty of refusing to provide their wives with a get were allowed to serve as the judges who adjudicated these cases.
The uncomfortable reality is that with all the good intentions, the Chief Rabbinate is a bankrupt institution. Political and economic interests take precedence over serving the public or being a positive representative of the Jewish religion. As we have argued in the past, ultimately the best remedy for this situation is to dismantle the Chief Rabbinate and allow rabbinic judges to be chosen in accordance with their merits, not in accordance with their connections.