Ultra-Orthodox Block Appointments of Tzohar Candidates for Rabbinical Court

Eight of the 22 new judges are moderate religious-Zionists, which bodes well for women's rights, activists say.

Olivier Fitoussi

Israel has chosen 22 new judges for its regional rabbinical courts, making progress in a years-long saga as both ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist Jews declare victory. The result is also seen as an achievement for women.

At 3 A.M. Friday, after 15 hours of deliberations, the appointments committee approved the 22 rabbinical court judges, or dayanim — seven Sephardi ultra-Orthodox rabbis, seven Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis and eight religious-Zionist rabbis.

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, members of the committee blocked the appointment of all three candidates linked to the more liberal Tzohar rabbinic organization, who were supported by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. That party has close links to the religious-Zionist community.

On Thursday into Friday, half the meeting was devoted to procedural matters. Judges were chosen only for the regional rabbinical courts; voting for the seven unfilled positions on the Supreme Rabbinical Court was postponed once again.

The appointments committee is chaired by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the voting, Steinitz joined the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties to foil the appointment of candidates the ultra-Orthodox considered too liberal.

"This is a high-quality and worthy group that will contribute to improving the work and reputation of the rabbinical courts,” Steinitz said about the new appointments.

Before the meeting, a source close to Habayit Hayehudi said Shas was violating the appointments committee’s tradition of letting each religious group put forward its own candidates. “Shas is not sufficing with promoting its own candidates, it's interfering in our deliberations,” the source said.

The appointments committee includes Israel's two chief rabbis, two dayanim from the Supreme Rabbinical Court and MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism).

The more-moderate candidates had the backing of the other bloc on the panel — rabbinical court advocate Rachel Levmore, bar association representative Efrat Rosenblat, MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) and presumably Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a Habayit Hayehudi leader who pledged to get more-moderate rabbis appointed.

Tipping the scales were Steinitz and the second bar-association representative, Asher Axelrod. But Shaked called the result a “great achievement” for the alliance between Habayit Hayehudi and the panel's more-liberal members.

Over the past five years, under three governments and changing members, the appointments committee failed to appoint any dayanim — political infighting that caused a serious shortage at the rabbinical courts.

The committee was supposed to appoint 30 new dayanim for the regional courts, about a quarter of the entire roster of dayanim. It was also supposed to appoint seven dayanim to the Supreme Rabbinical Court — the final two members are the two chief rabbis.

Swid called the appointments good news because eight moderate religious-Zionist dayanim were brought on board. They would, for example, work to get agunot, or "chained women," divorce agreements with their husbands.

She said these dayanin would “espouse equality between men and women, release agunot and build a bridge between the rabbinical courts and the nonreligious community that enters its gates."

According to Swid, "This is the first time the committee had four women members, and the cooperation between the women members brought the achievement that will change the character of the rabbinical courts in the coming decades. The public has received worthy dayanim.”

Two of the appointed dayanim are expected to face scrutiny because they had close relatives on the appointments committee. The latter left the room when their relatives were voted on, but the two inductees were probably on a list agreed on in advance by the committee's Haredi members.

If these two appointments are challenged at the High Court of Justice, the committee will probably have to prove that the two are "great Torah sages" or have similar talents.