Israeli Government Promotes Bill to Expand Rabbinical Courts' Jurisdiction Powers

After criticism of previous proposal, backers of new draft legislation say it provides for women's rights and offers protection for disabled

A couple gets a divorce at a rabbinical court.
Tali Mayer

The government unveiled a new bill that would grant rabbinical courts authority to adjudicate in civil disputes. According to the bill, rabbinical courts will be able to hold hearings and issue decisions in accordance with Jewish religious law – as long as the decisions don’t violate state laws assuring equality before the law to women and people with disabilities.

The bill would grant rabbinical courts the authority to adjudicate disputes and not merely act as arbitrators. This means rabbinical courts would have the authority to confiscate property, compel witnesses to appear and give testimony, impose temporary bans on leaving Israel, and other temporary bans. This would also mean litigants will be able to appeal rabbinical court decisions to the highest rabbinical court or the Supreme Court.

The rabbinical court administration told Haaretz that the promotion of the bill was agreed upon by Shas lawmakers and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi).

Israeli rabbinical courts have the authority to adjudicate in matters pertaining to marriage and divorce of Jews, but in the past they also acted as arbitrators in financial disputes. In 2006, the Supreme Court issued a decision that rabbinical courts did not have the authority to act as arbiters in financial and other matters, and that if the state wished to have rabbinical courts act as arbiters of such disputes, this authority would have to be granted to them in legislation.

Following the Supreme Court decision, rabbinical courts stopped arbitrating financial disputes, and people who wished to have their disputes adjudicated according to Jewish religious law had to seek arbiters in private rabbinical courts in the community. These rabbinical courts have no legal authority.

In the preamble to the bill, the drafters explained that: “It is appropriate that the state provide populations with special characteristics state-sanctioned tools to arbitrate disputes in a legally alternative manner that is acceptable to their communities, especially when the case in question is the law of the Torah, Jewish Law, the heritage of the Jewish people.” According to the preamble, “This manner is in keeping with the basic right to unfettered access to adjudication, including in rabbinic courts and with the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The bill states that rabbinic courts will only be able to adjudicate disputes when all sides explicitly agree in writing to appear in front of them. The bill has a clause intended to block cases of religious coercion by banning the issuing of “ban writs” – court decisions issued against litigants who refuse to appear in front of rabbinical courts, which could lead to the boycotting of the litigant, the refusal of his admittance to a minyan (a praying group of at least 10 men) or the enforcement of the decisions of the rabbinical court

“It is obvious that rabbinical courts dealt with these matters for many decades,” attorney Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, rabbinical courts director, told Haaretz. According to Yaakobi, rabbinical courts used to adjudicate 700 financial disputes annually. “There is a large public that wants the rabbinical courts,” he said.

There are dozens of private rabbinical courts operating in Israel, adjudicating financial and other disputes in the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities. Their decisions can be sanctioned by regional courts and thus become legally binding in accordance with the Arbitration Law. According to Yaakobi, the main change that the bill seeks to achieve is that when rabbinical courts adjudicate in financial matters, their decisions will have the force of law without the need to apply for arbitrator status from the regional courts.

Yaakobi responded to the charge that the passing of the law would be detrimental to the rights of women and other “disadvantaged persons.” He says this is the reason the bill explicitly states that decisions must be in accordance with laws that ensure equality before the law. This means, he says, that religious laws that put women and other persons (such as the deaf) at a disadvantage will not be used in adjudication.

Opposition MK: 'Claim of protection for women is a lie'

MK Merav Michaeli, floor leader of the Zionist Union, harshly criticized the proposed bill. “The Ministry of Justice and Minister Ayelet Shaked who heads it are creating two parallel legal systems, one of which will not adjudicate according to the law but according to ‘the law of the Torah’ – that is, according to internal religious law politics,” Michaeli told Haaretz. “It seems like the current government is not content with weakening the courts, but also wants to subject them to competition. The bill shows that the government is trying to provide the rabbinical courts with wide-reaching judicial authority.

“Any attempt to claim that there is protection for women (in the bill) is a lie,” Michaeli said, “This is a court that only men may judge in and doesn’t view women as equals. Even today the rabbinical courts are supposed to rule according to some of the laws and in reality they do not. The minister of justice is aiding the disenfranchising of women, the weakening of the rule of law, the creation of a blacklist in rabbinical courts, and extreme religious coercion. This is an outrageous bill and we will do everything in our power to thwart its signing into law.”

This bill is only the latest that would have the rabbinical courts adjudicate financial disputes presented since 2006. None has thus far been voted into law. Officials at the rabbinical court administration told Haaretz that the bill, which was drafted by them, was only aimed at returning things to the way they were before the Supreme Court ruling in 2006.

The present draft was put forward after the cabinet voted to support a similar bill sponsored by MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism. Their bill would authorize all religious courts – rabbinical, Islamic or others – to serve as arbitrators on civil matters if all involved parties agreed.

Gafni and Maklev clarified it was not their intention to create religious coercion with the bill. They said the rabbinical courts could not impose religious sanctions, such as boycotts, on those who didn’t want the courts to resolve their disputes. They added that under religious law – at least that of Torah – parties to a dispute should first exhaust the religious law before turning to civil law.

At the time, the Women’s Lobby urged the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to oppose the bill because it would damage the status of women who participated in such arbitration proceedings. The lobby pointed out that the rabbinical courts don’t have a single presiding woman. “This composition ensures that in many cases, the male judges’ decisions will be biased in favor of men appearing before them, who are nearer to their world,” wrote the lobby, adding that all rulings would be based on halakha, Jewish religious law, which in turn is entirely based on the interpretations of Orthodox men. That bill has since been tabled.