Ultra-Orthodox MKs Pushing to Foil Appointments of ‘Liberal’ Rabbis

Source close to Habayit Hayehudi complains that Shas violating years-old custom observed by appointments committee to allow each religious group to put forward its own candidates.

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Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz.
Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz. Credit: Reuters

Shas and United Torah Judaism are pressuring Minister Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Rabbinical Court Judges Appointments Committee, to foil the appointment of candidates they think are too liberal.

Topping the ultra-Orthodox blacklist is Rabbi Uriel Lavi, a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Safed, who is a candidate to sit on the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Last year Lavi headed a rabbinical court that granted a woman a divorce even though her husband had been in a coma for years and could not consent. The ruling infuriated the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment, as well as many judges who sit on state-run rabbinical courts. Three other rabbis that Shas and UTJ oppose are candidates for regional rabbinical courts – Rabbis Benayahu Broner, David Bass and Nir Vargon – all of whom are members of the liberal-leaning Tzohar rabbinic association.

Shas and UTJ are also pressuring Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, another member of the appointments committee, in an effort to come to understandings with her that will block the appointment of dayanim that are not acceptable to them or to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, particularly Lavi. Yosef was a prominent critic of the divorce Lavi granted last year.

A source close to Habayit Hayehudi complained that Shas was violating the years-old custom observed by the appointments committee to allow each religious group to put forward its own candidates. “Shas is not making do with advancing its own candidates, but is intervening in our judgment,” the source said. “They prefer that the national-religious rabbis also be conservatives who toe the most stringent line with regard to women’s rights. Our fear is that ministers Steinitz and Shaked will allow this.”

Over the past five years, under three governments and with a variety of members, the Rabbinical Court Judges Appointments Committee has failed to appoint any dayanim, and as a result there is a serious shortage of manpower in the rabbinical courts. The committee, which is to convene on Thursday, is supposed to appoint 30 new dayanim for the regional courts, about a quarter of the entire roster of dayanim. It is also supposed to appoint seven dayanim to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which is almost the entire court aside from the two chief rabbis.

Because Shas, UTJ and Habayit Hayehudi cannot come to any firm agreements, the Haredim are pushing to appoint far fewer dayanim at the upcoming meeting. It’s possible that only 15 dayanim will be appointed to the regional rabbinical courts, and a vote on the Supreme Rabbinical Court candidates will be postponed.

The appointments committee has five Haredi members – the two chief rabbis, two dayanim from the Supreme Rabbinical Court and MK Israel Eichler from UTJ. The more moderate candidates have the backing of the other “camp” on the committee – rabbinical court pleader Dr. Rachel Levmore, one of the Israel Bar Association representatives, Efrat Rosenblat, and presumably Shaked, who has promised to work to get more moderate rabbis appointed. Tipping the scales will be the second bar association representative, Asher Axelrod, and committee chairman Steinitz. Steinitz refused to comment Monday, saying he has yet to formulate any opinions regarding Thursday’s meeting.

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at the Bar-Ilan University Law School, said, “The political deal developing around the appointment of dayanim threatens to break all records for cynicism in Israeli politics. Totally irrelevant considerations of political and sectoral affiliation are liable to dictate the workings of the committee without leaving any room for businesslike, professional considerations.

“This is particularly serious with regard to the appointments for the Supreme Rabbinical Court,” she continued. “A dayan’s term on the Supreme Rabbinical Court puts him in the most influential position to determine not just individual fates, but the development of Jewish law in the broader sense. Among the dayanim under consideration for this position are those who believe that in certain circumstances it is legitimate for a man to beat his wife; that divorce can be a marketable commodity; that it’s possible to cancel a divorce after it is given if the woman does not adhere to the conditions extorted from her, and in general, there are those among them who do not see women as human beings with equal rights.

“The idea that for political reasons these are the dayanim who will be standing at the crucial crossroads of the development of Jewish law is horrifying,” Halperin-Kaddari continued. “It should be stressed that what I’m saying in no way disqualifies any candidate for his social, religious or ethnic affiliation. The main reason for appointing or promoting must be solely professional, based on the knowledge and positions of each candidate.”

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