Leading Haredi Rabbi Blocks Women From Serving on Israeli Rabbinical Courts

Rabbi Shteinman says compromise that would allow women to serve as legal aides is unacceptable

Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman at an election rally in 2012.
Gil Cohen-Magen

A proposed compromise to appoint women to Israeli rabbinical courts, albeit as legal aides and not as judges, was blocked on Tuesday by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the influential leader of the non-Hassidic (Lithuanian) ultra-Orthodox community.

Although the first female judge was named to a Muslim religious court in Israel on Tuesday, equality for women in the rabbinical courts seems as far away as ever.

The compromise, which would have allowed women to serve as legal aides in rabbinical courts, had been reached with the cooperation of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. But Shteinman, who is also the leader of the Haredi Degel Torah faction within the United Torah Judaism party, stated last week that it was unacceptable. The courts administration refuses to disclose any details of the compromise.

Sources in United Torah Judaism said that as the compromise took shape, ultra-Orthodox rabbis complained to members of the Knesset about it. As a result, lawmaker Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) contacted Shteinman, who last week ordered that all the positions should continue to be reserved for men.

Rabbi Dr. Shaul Farber, chairman of the nonprofit ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, says the main problem with the rabbinical courts’ actions is that it flouts halakha. “According to the absolute majority of halakhic decisors, there is nothing to prevent a woman from engaging in legal counsel. On the contrary this is an elite trying to preserve its hegemony while ignoring the interests of Torah and the public,” he said.

Allowing women to serve on rabbinical courts has been on the agenda for a long time. The courts’ decision to hire only men reached a boiling point after a female lawyer who was also accredited to represent clients in rabbinical courts was rejected for a legal aide position, and sued for discrimination in 2016.

There are currently ten legal aides in Israel’s rabbinical courts, all of them men. Since the discrimination never ended, the plaintiff would not settle for a cancellation of the position’s bid, which the courts administration agreed to. She insisted that bidding for court aide positions be opened exclusively to women.

In the past, gender discrimination was built into the hiring process in various ways, such as requiring candidates to have rabbinical ordination (which only men can achieve). Explicitly gender-specific requirements have since been eliminated from bid requests for rabbinical court positions, but the new tenders still grant priority to accredited rabbinical judges, known as dayanim.

Hana Mansour-Khatib, an attorney specializing in family law, was confirmed as a qadi (a judge in a Sharia court) on Tuesday by the Judicial Appointments Committee, which oversees appointments of judges to all Israeli courts. All nine committee members, including several from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, voted in favor of her appointment.

The compromise allowing women to work as legal aides in rabbinical courts had won the blessing of Mendelblit as well as the director general of the rabbinical courts, Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi. However, Shteinman’s opposition may make it impossible for Yaakobi to proceed. Some months ago, Yaakobi wrote in an internal memo disseminated among the rabbinical judges stating that hiring choices must be objective and based on the candidates who applied. Merely meeting the criteria was not enough: Candidates had to be deemed mature enough and appropriate, he wrote.

“It is unthinkable for parties with no formal or legal status in the national judicial system to be the ones to stymie the process of reducing discrimination against women and their representation in the system,” said Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, founding director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

The Civil Service Commission and the management of the rabbinical courts agreed that there is nothing to prevent a woman from serving as a legal adviser, pointed out Keren Horowitz, a lawyer with the Rackman Center, adding that they agreed to push for the appointment of a woman to the position. Based on the timing of his directive, she accused Steinman of apparently trying to sway the Jerusalem Labor Court, which is about to rule on the lawsuit.