Israeli Rabbinical Court Judges, in accordance with Orthodox tradition, are all men. These Judges wield enormous power, in accordance with Israeli civil law, granted to them by the Knesset. The law states that Israeli State Rabbinical Courts have sole jurisdiction in determining the fate of all of Israel’s residents who are Jewish or wish to become Jewish in regard to their most existential life events – marriage and divorce. Aside from that most essential jurisdiction (there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel), Rabbinical Court Judges have far-reaching powers that impact civil liberties of the litigants who come before them: If a man refuses to give his wife a get or writ of Jewish divorce, the judges may levy restrictions on bank accounts; nullify a driver’s license or a professional license such as a license to practice medicine or law; restrain him from traveling abroad and cancel his passport; and even incarcerate a recalcitrant husband.
Depending on the school of thought in which the judge was trained, as well on his own personality and religious philosophy, a judge will rule stringently or leniently in the case of get-refusal — thereby playing the most major role, aside from the husband himself, in freeing an agunah or a victim of get-refusal, from an unwanted marriage.
It goes without saying that 50% of the litigants in divorce cases are women. However, as noted, 100% of those sitting in judgment on their petitions for freedom, are men. It took many years for the Israeli public to register the inherent problematic nature of a woman in need appearing in front of an all-male panel. However in the summer of 2013 a partial solution was reached, somewhat rectifying the situation by awarding women appropriate representation on the State Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges. In legislation initiated by MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), the makeup of the committee was expanded to eleven members from the previous ten with at least four of the members required to be women. This way women could influence the screening process whereby candidates were selected for appointments.
The recent coalition agreements threaten to ruin the delicate balance reached less than two years ago and place the appointment process squarely in the hands of ultra-Orthodox politicians. Likud’s political machinations have the potential to rollback the progress made by the Rabbinical Court system in the past decade in general (for example, the agreement to transfer the rabbinical court system to the Ministry of Religious Affairs from the present Ministry of Justice) but promises were made which will directly affect the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges in particular. The results of the coalition agreements between the Likud party and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas parties, are firstly that Likud undertook to raise the number of members to thirteen. The two additional members would both be ultra-Orthodox politicians — an MK from Yahadut Hatorah and a minister from Shas. This is in addition to one MK from the opposition (presumably a woman) and a male MK from Yahadut Hatorah/Shas, as well as two other ministers. Most importantly, the powerful position of committee chair is to be removed from the hands of the Justice Minister, as is the present legal requirement, to be put in the hands of an as-of-yet undetermined minister.
The coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties, if implemented, will lead to the following:
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a woman, will be removed from the heretofore legal and logical position as chair of the committee and the chairmanship will be put in the hands of a male minister. The Justice Minister will remain a regular member of the committee.
The number of women on the committee will remain four, but will be diluted to four out of thirteen — hardly appropriate representation of women in a State committee.
The number of politicians who are voting members will reach six — two more than the number of rabbis on the committee.
When counting the members who clearly identify with the ultra-Orthodox parties, it becomes clear that they will have an absolute majority of seven out of thirteen members — the four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and three ultra-Orthodox politicians.
For several years there have been no new judges appointed. This has led to a desperate need to fill between a quarter to a third of the positions in the regional courts and all of the positions on the High Rabbinical Court (aside from the two Chief Rabbis who joined the High Rabbinical Court in part-time positions). The appointment of this many judges is an opportunity to change the discourse in Jewish law regarding the agunah problem from one of stringency to one of leniency. However, if the determination of who will be judges is determined by politicians wielding their political power and with no female influence, this opportunity will be tragically lost.
There remains one ray of hope. The changes to which Likud obligated itself towards the two ultra-Orthodox political parties, cannot be implemented until legislated. The make-up and roles of the members of the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges are founded in the “Law of Rabbinical Court Judges — 1995.” Votes must be held in the Knesset to make the promised changes in the law and to choose the Knesset’s representatives to act as members of the committee. The MKs can be swayed by the court of public opinion — even those in the coalition — if the voices raised against these changes are loud enough and influential enough.
Lest the readers of the Forward separate themselves from this problem due to the geographical distance between the US and Israel, consider this: There is no distance between Jews when dealing with Jewish law. Physical location can become meaningless. In fact, when Orthodox Rabbinical Courts in the diaspora grapple with a difficult problem — very often one of an agunah —there is no longer any “great” accepted authority anywhere in the world that can give a universally accepted ruling. That is, aside from the Israeli Rabbinical Courts. It is these Courts to whom the local rabbis turn. The present appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges in Israel not only will affect future generations in Israel — they may affect your children as well.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, Rabbinical Court Advocate, is the Director of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project, of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency. She is a sitting member of the State of Israel Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.