The Supreme Rabbinical Court – the appeals court of the state rabbinical court system – stopped operating Sunday by order of the High Court of Justice, until the committee that appoints dayanim (rabbinic court judges) makes seven permanent appointments to the court.
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As of now the only two dayanim that are permanently appointed are the two chief rabbis – the court president, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. The court has been operating for a lengthy period by co-opting dayanim from the regional rabbinical courts as temporary appointments. These temporary appointments were totally under the control of Yosef, who did not need the approval of the dayanim appointment committee to make them.
In January, however, the High Court accepted the petition of a group called The Jewish State Movement, and ruled that by the end of April the appointment committee would have to make permanent appointments or all the temporary appointments Yosef had made would be voided, which is what has happened.
Since that ruling, the appointments committee chairman, Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz, tried three times to convene the appointment committee, but each time the meeting was cancelled at the last minute because of disputes among its members. The situation got worse in recent months, with the retirement of the other two permanent court members, Rabbis Zion Elgrabli and Zion Boaran, who were also members of the dayanim appointment committee. Now the committee has only nine members instead of 11, which gives the non-Haredi bloc an unexpected majority of five.
These non-Haredi members (Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, MK Revital Swid of Zionist Union, attorneys Asher Axelrod and Efrat Rosenblatt, representing the Israel Bar Association, and rabbinic pleader Dr. Rachel Levmore), are demanding that the committee not only appoint seven more dayanim to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, but also fill two to four of the open positions in the regional rabbinic courts. Under these circumstances they could force the appointment of a dayan affiliated with the relatively liberal Tzohar rabbinical organization, a move that would have been impossible a few months ago because the full 11-member committee had a Haredi majority.
Yosef, however, wants the committee to deal only with the higher court at this point. Two of the new dayanim appointed will replace Elgrabli and Boaron on the appointments committee, which would restore the Haredi majority on the committee and allow it to impose its will on the process of appointing dayanim to the lower courts.
It remains to be seen how quickly Steinitz can achieve some kind of agreement on the seven new dayanim, with an emphasis on their political-sectorial affiliation, a central consideration. Steinitz is proposing that each of the three religious parties in the governing coalition be allowed to promote two of its communities’ representatives – two for the Ashkenazi Haredim of United Torah Judaism, two for the Sephardic Haredim of Shas, and two for the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi. Steinitz wants to choose the seventh dayan himself, in consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two will be heavily focused on the affiliation of this dayan, who will be seen as a sort of “tie-breaker.”
Swid said Sunday, “Tomorrow we’ll know what’s more important to Steinitz, obeying the High Court of Justice or keeping peace in the coalition. What’s important to me as a member of the Labor Party is not the sector, but the appointment of moderate, worthy dayanim that can serve the entire public, including those who married in civil ceremonies and are forced to deal with the rabbinical courts if they divorce.”