The call for women to serve on religious councils

In Israel today there are 132 municipalities that provide state-sponsored religious services, and yet only 40 religious councils are functioning.

Tel Aviv rabinate David Hamelech Boulevard (photo credit: ORI~/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Tel Aviv rabinate David Hamelech Boulevard
(photo credit: ORI~/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The recent decision of the attorney-general to increase to 30 percent the number of women serving in state-sponsored religious councils is a great achievement. It is also a smokescreen.
Religious councils in Israel are responsible for overseeing the distribution of religious services in Israel, including mikvaot (ritual baths), eruv, kashrut and marriage registration. Religious councils could be a great way of providing religious services in Israel based on community need. Theoretically, if a municipality decided to be more pluralistic in its approach to the composition of the religious councils, state-sponsored Jewish life would be much more democratic.
But what has happened in reality is much more complex. At present, there are functioning religious councils in 40 municipalities in Israel, and their composition includes only 16.5% women. Studies by the Advot group and Neemanei Torah Va’Avodah have demonstrated that these numbers are disproportionate.
Last week, the attorney-general stepped in and said that religious councils should increase their representation to 30% women.
Since, halachically speaking, there is no reason why a woman shouldn’t serve on a religious council – notwithstanding the opposition that was raised in the 1970s when the first woman, Leah Shakdiel, was appointed to one – this is a move that is late in coming but certainly laudable. Women’s participation in religious councils stands to benefit everyone, especially the average citizen who receives religious services. Unquestionably, the kinds of complaints my organization, ITIM, receives about mikvaot are significantly smaller in municipalities where women are part of the religious council and there is good reason to think that the sensitivities women bring to the table when creating local policy related to religious services will be a breath of fresh air.
Moreover, since the religious councils are government institutions, the call of the attorney-general is basically a step forward in fighting discrimination against women, who until now were being prevented from serving.
And yet, there is something incredibly problematic about the call for women to serve on religious councils.
In Israel today there are 132 municipalities that provide state-sponsored religious services, and yet only 40 religious councils are functioning. What, you may ask, happens in the 92 other municipalities? Well, in the absence of a religious, the minister of religious affairs is charged with appointing a body that will oversee religious services. This appointment is meant to be temporary, but this is Israeli religious bureaucracy, where inertia rules. In Jerusalem, for example, the temporary appointed body has functioned for more than 14 years! Many of the 92 appointed bodies have become permanent.
What should really raise red flags, however, is the number of women serving on these appointed committees. I mentioned above that 16.5% of the 40 religious councils’ members are women. However, I need not talk in percentages when speaking about the 92 appointed committees. In all 92 (which usually number two representatives), there is exactly one woman serving.
It is simple for the attorney-general to call upon religious councils to increase the percentage of women serving on existing councils. But if we really want to change the way religious services work in this country, we need to insist that women serve on the appointed committees as well, and we need to have oversight on those committees. At present, Jerusalem’s religious council is functioning without any women. And so are 90 others.
If the attorney-general is motivated to allow women to start playing a role in the Jewish lives of Israeli citizens, it is insufficient to have the 30% rule effect only existing councils. At present the directive will only have a limited effect. But should the attorney-general apply the requirement to the appointed councils as well, there is an opportunity for some real change.
And can’t we all agree that that is necessary?
The author is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center (