Women Activists Fight ultra-Orthodox Bill to Keep Rabbinical Panel Conservative

In the run-up to a key vote, the women support candidates who have done military service and are college educated.

Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.
Tess Scheflan

Woman activists have sent a letter to the head of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, trying to block efforts by ultra-Orthodox parties to keep the panel conservative.

“Succumbing to political forces will have a negative effect on the lives and liberty of tens of thousands of women and men in Israel in the coming decades,” wrote the women, both religious and secular, many of them leading academics.

They were addressing Yuval Steinitz before Thursday's scheduled meeting of the committee for appointing rabbinical court judges. Steinitz, also a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also energy minister.

The dozens of women turned to Steinitz amid pressure by Shas and United Torah Judaism to prevent the appointment of more-liberal rabbis. The women back candidates who, for example, have done military service and are college educated.

The committee will convene Thursday if preliminary understandings are reached between Shas, UTJ, Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi and the independents on the committee. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no such understandings. Also, the panel might meet but not vote.

Meanwhile, Shas is lobbying so that a vote does not take place for all 24 regional rabbinical court slots to be filled. The party does not believe it can mobilize a majority to block candidates it considers too liberal.

“In effect, you have the power to influence the conduct of the rabbinical court system in the coming decades, and thus the fate, lives and liberty of tens of thousands of male and female Israeli citizens," the women wrote.

“We are certain that your integrity and conscience will lead you to support the most worthy dayanim: [rabbinical court judges]: those involved in Israeli society's various segments, who have served in the army, have a broad general education and have proved their ability to be attentive to the Israeli public in general and the distress of agunot women."

The husbands of women considered agunot, or chained, will not grant them a get, a religious divorce.

“We are well aware of the great pressure by ultra-Orthodox politicians for the appointment of other dayanim who are close to powerful figures from a very narrow community, and who are not involved in the needs of the Israeli public as a whole."

The letter was signed by women including Prof. Shulamit Elizur of Hebrew University's literature department; Prof. Vered Noam of Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Culture Studies; and Rachelle Sprecher-Fraenkel, a senior official at two institutes for advanced Torah studies for women.