Shas Exploits Loophole to Keep More–liberal Judges Off High Rabbinical Court

Shortage of judges has worsened over the years, as the political parties represented on the dayanim appointments committee continuously bicker over nominations.

Yaakov Cohen

The committee for the appointment of dayanim, rabbinical court judges, is not expected to make any new permanent appointments to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in the near future, despite the serious shortage of judges on that court.

Disputes on the committee and the desire of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to head off the permanent appointment of moderate dayanim make it unlikely that candidates for the high rabbinical court such as Rabbi Uriel Lavi, a dayan from Safed, will be appointed. In a groundbreaking case last year, Lavi raised the ire of the Haredi rabbinical community when the rabbinical panel he headed granted a divorce to a woman whose comatose husband could not do so.

A round of appointments that the committee made to regional rabbinical courts late last week was received with satisfaction by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and by Yosef’s office. On Wednesday, the Sephardi chief rabbi, who is also president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, hosted the 22 new judicial appointees. The committee did not deal with nominations to the religious high court, postponing that vote for a later date.

National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz, who chairs the appointments committee, wants to hold hearings shortly on candidates for the higher court as well, but the ultra-Orthodox members of the committee don’t seem to be in any hurry. Haaretz has learned that Yosef, whose late father was the spiritual mentor of Shas, prefers the prevailing situation, which allows him to make temporary appointments to the high court of dayanim to his liking.

Yosef, as Sephardi chief rabbi, and Rabbi David Lau, his Ashkenazi counterpart, are both members of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, but take five-year turns as president, with the other heading the Chief Rabbinical Council. For some time the court has had only two other permanent dayanim serving on the court: Rabbi Tzion Boaron, who is due to step down shortly, and Rabbi Tzion Elgrabli, who is due to retire in a few months.

The Supreme Rabbinical Court needs at least seven more permanent dayanim, but Yosef’s associates say that in light of the current dispute among panel members, it will be hard to convene the committee to make permanent appointments in the foreseeable future. Thus, the postponed vote on the high court appointments can be seen as a major achievement for the Haredi committee members.

This shortage of dayanim has worsened over the years, as the political parties represented on the dayanim appointments bickered continuously. The worst crisis occurred in May, when the Supreme Rabbinical Court was shut down for a time.

But unlike the regional rabbinical courts, the higher court has a solution: It can borrow dayanim from the lower courts for a year, through a simple administrative procedure, without having to consider the unwritten appointments committee rule that calls for appointing equal numbers of dayanim from each religious sector — Sephardi Haredim, Ashkenazi Haredim and religious Zionists.

At the end of May, newly minted Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who was then the minister responsible for the rabbinical courts, approved the temporary appointments of three dayanim to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. It isn’t the first time this court has relied on temporary appointments, but those around Yosef confirm that this is how he prefers it.

Yosef isn’t necessarily insisting that all the temporary dayanim be Haredi — Rabbi Eliezer Igra, who was one of the May nominees, is a religious Zionist rabbi — but the entire process can be under his close supervision. The process has become even easier since, under the coalition agreement with Shas, responsibility for the rabbinical courts was transferred in July to the Religious Services Ministry, controlled by Shas. For now, then, temporary appointments will be made by agreement between Yosef and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.

Under this arrangement, there’s almost no chance that more “liberal” dayanim like Lavi will ever be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Lavi, once considered a leading candidate for the higher court, became anathema to the Haredi committee members when the court he led freed the aguna. The Safed dayanim, relying on doctors’ opinions that the husband’s medical condition was static, invoked a rarely used concept called the get zikui, which assumes that under the circumstances, the husband would wish to divorce his wife if he could. The case became part of the Haredi political battle against dayanim considered too liberal. Letters, Haredi newspaper headlines and street posters condemned Lavi for permitting a married woman to remarry. Both Boaron and Yosef criticized the rulings in various forums.

According to a statement issued by the Religious Services Ministry, Yosef on Wednesday told the new dayanim, “When you have someone to rely on and can permit and save [someone], do so.” But in practice, the most senior dayan to permit and save someone has no chance to advance.

Lavi has Steinitz’s support, but it’s doubtful the minister can advance his candidacy. While appointing a regional dayan requires a regular majority on the committee, a candidate for the Supreme Rabbinical Court requires eight of the 11 panel members to support him.

Even a legal opinion obtained by Steinitz that would allow him to conduct votes when the chief rabbis are not present (which he obtained when they recently threatened not to attend hearings), is not valid with regard to higher rabbinical court appointments.

The previous chairman of the dayanim appointments committee, former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, also supported Lavi’s candidacy for the Supreme Rabbinical Court. She tried to come to agreements on crucial appointments to all the rabbinical courts, but failed.

That Steinitz managed to get 22 regional dayanim appointed after nearly five years during which no new dayanim had been named is considered a major breakthrough.

Associates of Steinitz say he plans to hold a hearing on appointments to the Supreme Rabbinical Court within a month, but convening the committee requires the cooperation of the entire Haredi contingent on the panel —five of the 11 members — and it isn’t clear that this will be forthcoming.