Israel High Court Rules to Let Women Compete With Men for Rabbinical Court Role

Justice Ministry must drop requirement that had prevented female candidates from becoming director of rabbinical courts.

Moti Milrod

The High Court of Justice has given the Justice Ministry 30 days to formulate new regulations that will allow women to compete equally with men for the position of director of rabbinical courts.

The High Court accepted a petition filed by women’s groups against the president of the rabbinical court and the Religious Services Ministry. The groups had requested a change in the requirements to become a director, which included the possession of a rabbinical diploma recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Women’s inability to obtain such diplomas had prevented them from being considered for the post.

The petitioners claimed that requiring candidates to possess rabbinical ordination discriminated against women and that it was irrelevant for the position of court director, which is an administrative role. The High Court accepted these arguments.

“There is no reason a woman cannot fill this role,” said Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, the deputy president of the High Court. “We believe the current situation to be improper.” He suggested that rabbinical courts voluntarily appoint female deputy directors. “If my opinion were heard, a deputy director woman would be appointed and the public would get used to the fact that women can serve not just in technical roles but in senior ones as well. We’re moving in that direction,” he added.

The High Court also heard a petition by the Movement for a Jewish State, which was attached to the petition filed by women’s groups, asking that rabbinical judges be appointed on a permanent, rather than temporary, basis, in contrast to the prevailing custom. This petition was also accepted by the court. “It’s unreasonable that only the chief rabbis have a statutory appointment, whereas all the others are swept away by the wind, pensioned off,” wrote Justice Rubinstein.

The campaign to appoint women as court directors has been running for years. The petition was filed a year ago by attorney Batia Kahana-Dror and her Mavoi Satum organization, as well as by attorneys Gali Etzion (from the women’s group Na’amat) and Irit Gazit (from WIZO). It was filed at a time when there was a race to fill the post of director of rabbinical courts. Kahana-Dror wished to be considered for the position, but was denied the opportunity. The eventual winner was attorney Shimon Yaakobi, previously the rabbinical courts’ legal adviser.

While the petition was under review, Yaakobi could not assume the role permanently. The race will now be opened again with Kahana-Dror and possibly other women competing.

Rabbinical Court President Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (who is also Sephardi chief rabbi) and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay argued that a woman could not be appointed to the job. However, the state – through an opinion by outgoing Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein – announced last November that there was no legal obstacle to appointing a woman, and that considering women for the job was important for the sake of equality. The state also claimed, though, that deep knowledge of religious law was essential. The High Court rejected this claim.

In addition to the basic ruling, justices Rubinstein, Menachem Mazuz and Uri Shoham made a practical decision as well. They determined that the requirements for the job would include a legal background and knowledge of family law. They instructed the state to formulate new regulations that would allow women to compete.

Kahana-Dror said the ruling was “of enormous importance – a breakthrough that enables women to compete for these jobs, establishing that rabbinical courts are also subject to laws governing constitutional rights. This could also be expressed in rulings these courts make.”

Women’s groups also hailed the decision. Galia Wolloch, the head of Na’amat U.S.A., said, “This was a dramatic decision and a great victory for women. The High Court recognized the need to incorporate women into the religious establishment. This is a further step on the way to prevent the exclusion of women in Israeli public life.”

WIZO Israel chairwoman Galia Oshrat added, “This was a dramatic decision, in line with other groundbreaking decisions by the High Court. The decision breaks through the fortified walls of the rabbinical courts, improving without a shadow of doubt the lot of families appearing before these courts.”