High Court Rules That a Woman Can Head Israel’s Rabbinical Courts

Ruling allowing women to apply for job comes after attorney general's opinion that role is an administrative one, not religious

Batya Kahana-Dror, one of the successful petitioners.
Emil Salman

A woman can serve as director of Israel’s rabbinical courts, the High Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday.

Although the ruling doesn’t mandate that a woman should get the job, it does enable women to apply for it.

In 2014, lawyer Batya Kahana-Dror applied for the director’s job and was rejected on the grounds that, under existing regulations, the director must be either a religious court judge or someone qualified to be a municipal rabbi – both positions open only to men.

Kahana-Dror, who heads the Mavoi Satum organization that helps women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, then petitioned the court against the regulation, together with two women’s organizations (Na’amat and WIZO).

During the almost three years of hearings, Justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Uri Shoham and Menachem Mazuz urged the Religious Services Ministry to change this regulation and gave the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee time to do so.

But the panel couldn’t come up with regulations that satisfied both sides, so the court ultimately had to rule.

The ruling relied on an opinion by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, which said that while the rabbinical courts director must have “deep knowledge” of the religious laws on which these courts base their rulings, it is purely an administrative job – not a religious one, as the ministry had claimed. Religious jobs can violate the law against gender-based discrimination, but administrative ones cannot.

The court therefore said the director’s job should be open to anyone licensed as a rabbinical pleader, meaning someone who argues cases before rabbinical courts, or any lawyer with a master’s degree in either Jewish law or Talmud.

The applicant must also have at least seven years’ experience appearing before rabbinical courts, and must have a character and lifestyle appropriate to the job. Since women can work as rabbinical pleaders, the new criteria open the job to women.

The justices wrote that at a time when women hold high-level positions throughout the rest of the civil service, “it is inconceivable that they shouldn’t be suitably represented in the Rabbinical Courts Administration. This has great value not just to women, but also to bolstering the status of the rabbinical courts.”

Last month, Michal Goldstein became the first woman ever appointed deputy director of the rabbinical courts.

The justices welcomed this appointment but said that, nevertheless, “the possibility of a woman being at the top of the administrative pyramid in a system whose administrative spine is comprised primarily of men is important in itself and implements the value of equality.”

They also ordered the respondents – the Religious Services Ministry and the Rabbinical Courts Administration – to pay the petitioners 15,000 shekels ($4,100) in court costs.

Mavoi Satum praised the decision as “a historic breakthrough in the area of religion and state, and an important achievement in the battle for equal rights for women in the rabbinical court system.”

Kahana-Dror said that though the ruling “doesn’t guarantee a woman’s appointment as director of the rabbinical courts in practice, it requires the rabbinical court system to consider female candidates for the job, which is a crucial achievement. Coupled with the actual appointment of a female deputy director of the rabbinical courts – also due to this petition – the ruling offers hope to women and an opening to correct the discrimination in the religious establishment.

“I hope this ruling will become a guiding principle on all religious issues in Israel,” Kahana-Dror added. “This is a historic milestone in the battle to strengthen Jewish and democratic values, and for Israeli women, who are discriminated against in the rabbinical courts. This decision creates a crack in the rabbinical court system, which was and remains a completely male system characterized by inbuilt inequality toward women.”