Rabbinical Judge Who Favored Women's Rights Blocked From Top Court Promotion

Rabbi Uriel Lavi sparked Haredi ire with landmark ruling to grant religious divorce to woman whose husband is in a coma.

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A rabbinical court in Jerusalem (illustration).
A rabbinical court in Jerusalem (illustration).Credit: Tess Scheflan

A senior rabbinical court judge (dayan) who made a controversial ruling in favor of religious women’s rights will not be promoted to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

The dayan, Rabbi Uriel Lavi, a year and a half ago granted a religious divorce to a woman whose husband is in a coma, in a ruling that infuriated senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis. The order to deny Lavi the promotion was given by the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

Safed Rabbinical Court Judge Uriel LaviCredit: Courtesy / Rabbincal Court

However, Lavi’s new position, head of the Regional Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, marks a promotion over his previous post as head of the Safed Rabbinical Court, and is meant to be a compromise that will ensure the removal of his candidacy for the Supreme Rabbinical Court. That candidacy has been supported in the past year and a half by members of the committee for appointing dayanim, and by groups ranging from Habayit Hayehudi to women’s rights organizations.

For several years Lavi was a leading candidate for promotion to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, until he wrote his breakthrough decision, as a result of which a woman from Kiryat Shmona, whose husband was in a coma for seven years, received a religious divorce, or get. Since that ruling, Lavi’s candidacy for the Supreme Rabbinical Court has become the main point of dispute in the committee for appointing dayanim. The Haredim, headed by Yosef, were opposed to his promotion, while the chair of the previous committee, MK Tzipi Livni (National Union), presented his appointment as a condition for other rabbinical court appointments. Representatives of women’s rights organization, the Israel Bar Association and Habayit Hayehudi also supported him.

The chair of the present committee, Minister Yuval Steinitz, supported Lavi but recently led a round of appointments of 22 dayanim to the regional courts. This solved a serious shortage in the rabbinical courts, and weakened Lavi’s status as a bargaining chip in the complex negotiations in the committee, which suffers from over-politicization. Lavi withstood the tremendous pressure to overturn the decision, including posters denouncing him in Haredi neighborhoods, advertisements in the Haredi press and letters from rabbis. Even the most senior rabbi who approved his decision, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, changed his mind due to the pressure. Lavi stood by his decision, and along with the two colleagues who issued it together with him, he published an open letter to his critics on the stationery of the rabbinical court and the State of Israel.

But during recent months, when it seemed that Lavi’s candidacy would be brought before the committee for appointing dayanim after all, he agreed to a process of internal arbitration by the rabbinical courts that would present his ruling for criticism, including an option of overturning it. According to associates of Yosef, he was the one who rejected the initiative, in order to prevent gossip to the effect that the ruling was changed for the sake of an appointment.

At the same time, the Supreme Rabbinical Court is scheduled to hold a discussion of an appeal of Lavi’s ruling. The appeal was submitted by a third party, who was not involved in the case (as mentioned, the husband’s family did not oppose the get). In recent days an initial discussion of the appeal was canceled, and it’s not clear whether there is any connection to recent developments.

Batya Kahane-Dror, attorney for the Kiryat Shmona woman, welcomed the partial promotion of Lavi to the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. “I bless Rabbi Yosef for his appointment of Rabbi Lavi to head the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. ... The significance of Rabbi Lavi’s promotion is acceptance of his halakhic breakthrough, which is likely to be important news for many other women.”

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