Shortage of Judges Keeps Religious Court Closed, Thousands in Limbo

Situation blamed on years-long paralysis of committee for appointing judges, failure of religious parties to reach political understandings.

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Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Next week a rare eclipse is scheduled to occur in Jerusalem: A panel of three dayanim, Jewish religious court judges, are to enter the hall of the High Rabbinical Court, the highest court of appeals in the religious courts, and do its duty. The dayanim are to judge based on Jewish law, holy work that they have been sworn to uphold by the president.

What is supposed to happen every day, all year – the convening of the High Rabbinical Court – requires recruiting new manpower to a system that has only four permanent religious judges: the two chief rabbis of Israel, who serve as the heads of the court, and two permanent judges. One of them, Rabbi Zion Algrabli, agreed to a request from the president of the High Rabbinical Court, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and will end his forced leave – despite his failing health – to enable the panel to hear an urgent case – one, or two, or maybe even three or four. As many as he can endure.

Four such urgent cases are each their own entire world, painful family stories, but there are also another 2,900 such cases waiting for the High Court, and no one will touch them any time soon, since this central governmental institution, comparable in status to the Supreme Court, has been paralyzed for quite a while.

“I am sorry but at this stage the secretariat does not set dates for hearings because of the serious shortage of dayanim,” is the wording that litigants receive when they file an appeal with the High Court. and the signature on the form is that of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.

At least six permanent judges are needed for the High Court, as well as another 25 for the regional Jewish religious courts. This is the result of a continued paralysis of the committee for appointing dayanim in recent years. The religious parties have been unable to come to any political understandings over these years and the committee has not made any appointments.

A few months ago Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein rejected the repeated requests of Rabbi Yosef to at least allow temporary appointments of new judges so as to be able to hear cases. Weinstein decided that such appointments could not be made before the new government was sworn in, but it seems he did not take into consideration the political situation would be in even after the new government took office.

At the beginning of the week Yosef made three temporary, six-month appointments to the High Rabbinical Court. The judges were chosen after great efforts to reach agreement between Shas and Habayit Hayehudi – but the appointments have still not been officially approved. They still require the signature of the justice minister, and Shas claims that the new minister, Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi, has been delaying her approval.

Shas leader Arye Dery is furious with Rabbi Yosef for the entire affair, said party sources. Dery has demanded postponing the appointments until the administration of the Rabbinical Courts is transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, as was agreed in the coalition pacts forming the new government. This would allow Shas, which controls the Religious Services Ministry, to make all the new appointments of dayanim, temporary and permanent, from now on. Dery’s bureau said, “It never happened.” Within Shas, sources say it is in the interest of Habayit Hayehudi to delay the appointments to put pressure on Shas in other matters in dispute.

While the politicians are sparring, the paralysis of the rabbinical courts has affected entire families. M., a mother of four, has been refused a religious divorce, or get, by her husband of nine years, and she, too, received the letter signed by Lau informing her the High Court was closed for business. Yesterday she decided not to remain silent any longer and petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking it to rule in the place of the High Rabbinical Court, which is closed to her, and to thousands of others.

M.’s story is long, complex and winding, and has passed back and forth between various courts. After the court in Tel Aviv ordered her husband to give her a divorce, suddenly it changed its previous ruling and accepted the husband’s demand, in opposition to a previous ruling that was approved by the High Rabbinical Court, to make granting the divorce conditional on M. giving up her rights to their jointly owned home. The reason was the husband had sworn an oath that he would not grant the divorce before the division of property was settled.

While the court in practice supports the postponement of the get, the woman can only turn to the newspapers, or to the High Court of Justice, which she is now asking to intervene and hand down a ruling.

“What we have here is a closed proceeding, with all that implies. It’s not democratic, it’s in a state of collapse,” says lawyer Batya Kahana Dror, who is representing M. in the case. “If it were the Supreme Court that had closed its gates, all the human rights organizations would be rising up in protest. In this case, silence. The rabbinical courts are dependent on the kindness of the politicians.”

The appeal filed against the rabbinical appeals courts in Tel Aviv, the chief rabbis and Shaked charges that by blocking deliberation of her client’s appeal, the state tips its hand to the “strong” side in the divorce process, since the dissatisfied party can drag the process out for a long time, submitting meaningless appeals only to postpone the issue of the divorce decree.

Oddly, the respondents – including Yosef’s office and Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, legal adviser to the Rabbinical Courts Administration – agree with most of the arguments. “Regarding the state’s duty to immediately convene the rabbinical judges’ appointments committee, the argument is correct,” Yaakobi said.

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