The Jerusalem Rabbinical Court refused to accept relevant testimony from women during a hearing on the division of property in a divorce case, a complaint to the judges’ ombudsman shows.
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The judges refused a woman’s subsequent request that they disqualify themselves from hearing her case. When she sought to appeal that decision, she was told she would have to deposit 50,000 shekels ($14,300) as a condition for having her appeal heard. That’s when she decided to file the complaint.
The ombudsman, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, found her complaint justified, and serious enough for the judges to reconsider recusing themselves.
The panel sitting on the beit din (rabbinical court) included three rabbis, Jerusalem Regional Rabbinical Court President Yisrael Yifrah, Meir Yisasschar Mazuz and Yosef Goldberg.
According to the complaint, the panel ruled that “according to Jewish law, a woman is not accepted as a witness unless the other side agrees, and the husband opposes a woman’s testimony.”
But Rivlin’s examination of the transcripts showed that during the hearing, the judges asked the husband to leave the courtroom, and only afterward asked the woman’s lawyer how many witnesses he planned to summon. Then the judges asked on their own initiative, “Are your witnesses men or also women?” When the attorney responded, “both,” Yifrah said, “We don’t accept women.”
The transcript, Rivlin found, does not indicate that the husband had expressed any objection to hearing women’s testimony, as he was apparently not present when the exchange took place.
In addition to describing the judges’ remark as “improper and outrageous,” Rivlin said, “There was no place for the court to ask the party who wanted to bring witnesses whether they were men or women, without the court even ascertaining which women want to testify and what they wanted to testify about.”
The woman also complained of irregularities relating to her attorney being allowed to cross-examine witnesses, complaints that Rivlin also found justified.
All told, Rivlin said the facts added up to “a sorry picture of the conduct of a hearing.” He recommended that the beit din reconsider its decision, “given the severity of the issues, and in light of the fact that the woman asked the beit din to be disqualified.”
Under the simplest reading of Jewish law as recorded in the Shulhan Arukh, a woman cannot be a valid witness, along with numerous other people who are disqualified, such as the deaf, the mentally ill, a gambler or someone who desecrates Shabbat in public. Indeed, in certain circumstances the need for “kosher witnesses” would preclude relying solely on a woman’s testimony, such as claims of adultery or in debt claims.
In practice, however, women testify before rabbinical courts all the time, under the principle that a person is permitted to testify about things that he experienced or in cases where both sides agree to hear a woman’s testimony. The court can also seek background information from a woman in an effort to ascertain the intentions of the parties or to get a general impression of the circumstances.
Sources in the rabbinical-court system say that in response to the complaint against Yifrah, the Rabbinical Courts Administration had considered reissuing professional guidelines to all the rabbinical-court judges, stating that they must accept women’s testimony in their courtrooms. Ultimately the guidelines weren’t reissued, on the grounds that the judges, known as dayanim, know the rules and that Yifrah’s case was exceptional.
“There are very specific circumstances in which a woman’s testimony is not acceptable, and these are very rare circumstances that rarely come up in the rabbinical courts nowadays,” a person in the courts administration said. “The problem with Dayan Yifrah,” this person said, is that while the Shulhan Arukh has four volumes, “he forgot the `fifth volume of the Shulhan Arukh,’ which is to be a mensch.”
The Rabbinical Courts Administration said that it could not respond directly to the report because publishing a decision of the ombudsman for judges is prohibited. But it said the ombudsman’s decisions “are always recorded in the personal files of the rabbinical judges involved, and they are considered at relevant times by the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, the justice minister and the Judicial Appointments Committee.”
Yifrah was promoted to head the regional rabbinical court — a position equivalent to that of district court president — in May 2012. According to rabbinical-court sources, the Jerusalem Regional Rabbinical Court is considered one of the most problematic in Israel in terms of the volume of complaints received about its judges’ behavior.