Israeli Rabbinical Court Authority Names First Woman to Senior Position

Rabbinical Courts Administration appoints Michal Goldstein as deputy director general

Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.
Tess Scheflan

For the first time ever, a woman has been named to a senior position in Israel’s religious establishment, after the Rabbinical Courts Administration appointed Michal Goldstein as its deputy director general.

Goldstein has served until now as a department head in the Interior Ministry’s municipal administration.

Goldstein’s appointment was announced in late June in a statement to the High Court of Justice filed on behalf of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who heads the rabbinical courts, and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay. The statement noted that the rabbinical courts have never before had a deputy director general, but said the Finance Ministry’s budget department has given approval “in principle” to the new position.

The Civil Service Commission hasn’t yet finished vetting Goldstein, the statement added, but is expected to do so soon.

In a decision issued earlier this week, the court welcomed the appointment and said it wanted an update on where the approval process stood by July 23. But a source in the rabbinical courts said the appointment has already been approved, and Goldstein is expected to start work in the next few days.

“We’ve made history,” Batya Kahana-Dror, director of the Mavoi Satum organization, told Haaretz this week. “For the first time, a woman will hold a senior position at the rabbinical courts. Admittedly it’s a deputy director general, and not yet a director general, but it’s a first step that constitutes a harbinger of things to come.”

Goldstein’s appointment is the climax of a saga that began in 2014, when three women’s rights organizations – Mavoi Satum, Na’amat and WIZO – petitioned the High Court of Justice to demand that the Rabbinical Courts Administration allow women to apply for the job of director general. The petition argued that the requirements set by law for this job – that the applicant must be qualified to serve as either a municipal rabbi or a rabbinical court judge – violated both the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, since they effectively excluded all women: Under Orthodox Jewish law, women cannot serve as either a rabbi or a rabbinical judge.

During the hearings on the case, then-Justice Elyakim Rubinstein suggested that a woman also be appointed as the administration’s deputy director general. The Religious Services Ministry agreed to this suggestion, so work began on finding someone for that job even while the court was still considering the issue of appointing a woman as director general.

In January 2016, the court said that women should be allowed to apply for the director general’s job, since the director general is an administrative position, so there is no reason why the occupant should need rabbinic ordination. But instead of formally overturning the law, it gave the government time to revise the regulations on its own.

The Knesset Constitution Committee has been working on that, but hasn’t reached an agreement. This week the court said it wanted an update on the panel’s progress by July 23 as well, and warned that if no decision has been made by then, it will issue a formal ruling.