Israel Ministry Waits for Jewish Ruling on Letting Women Eulogize

Ministerial committee to advance status of women decided recently that Religious Services Ministry should amend burial society licenses so that women may accompany dead to graves, eulogize them at funerals.

The Religious Services Ministry is waiting for a halakhic ruling before deciding whether to allow women to give eulogies in cemeteries, even though a ministerial committee authorized them to do so, a ministry official said Wednesday.

"It is unthinkable that a halakhic ruling" - a rabbinic ruling on a point of Jewish law - "should dictate a government ministry's decision," said Culture Minister Limor Livnat, head of the interministerial task force set up to deal with a recent spate of ultra-Orthodox violence and discrimination against women. "I will not allow it."

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

A ministerial committee to advance the status of women decided a few weeks ago that the Religious Services Ministry should amend the licenses of the burial societies, known as hevra kadishas, to clearly state that women may accompany the dead to their graves and eulogize them at funerals.

But when Livnat's task force held its first meeting in the Knesset yesterday, Deborah Eiferman of the Religious Services Ministry told it, "we are waiting for [Chief Sephardi] Rabbi Shlomo Amar's halakhic ruling on the matter."

"Your statement completely contradicts the decision made three weeks ago," Livnat responded. "That is totally unacceptable. I take a very grim view of it."

Science Minister Daniel Hershkowitz agreed. "The hevra kadisha's job is to see that the deceased is cleansed and buried according to halakha," he said. "The way a family decides to mourn is a private business, not a halakhic one."

Livnat instructed the ministry to submit a written report for the panel's meeting next Wednesday, explaining who is in charge of burial in Israel and what powers the hevra kadishas have. In addition, the ministry's director general was instructed to detail what the ministry has done so far to implement the decision made earlier this month by the ministerial committee to advance the status of women.

"Israel's cemeteries are managed by the hevra kadishas according to Jewish law," the ministry said later in a statement. "Anyone interested in burying his dead not according to Jewish law may do so in one of the alternative secular cemeteries.

"In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate is the exclusive authority on halakhic matters," it continued. "The chief rabbis' ruling will bind the burial companies.

"The ministry is waiting for the Chief Rabbinate's ruling on the halakhic aspect of women eulogizing and will instruct the burial societies accordingly. Until then, the ministry's position is that the families' feelings must be taken into account and women should not be prevented from eulogizing if the family so wishes," the statement concluded.

The ministry's policy appears to have undergone an about-face over the past few days. Less than two weeks ago, ministry director general Avigdor Ohana told Haaretz that while burial societies can set norms, they cannot impose them on bereaved families. "If the family at a funeral says it wants to do things one way and not another, neither the rabbi nor anyone else can refuse," Ohana said.

The task force, whose meeting was attended by government officials, women's rights activists and army and police officials, also discussed other aspects of the exclusion of women. The Civil Service Commission said it will circulate a memorandum to all ministries with clear instructions on preventing women's exclusion from state ceremonies and events.

The task force asked all ministry directors general to submit a report in two weeks detailing their efforts to prevent women's exclusion in their ministries, possible problems and how to deal with them.

Livnat also asked the deputy director general of the Transportation Ministry, Charles Solomon, who attended the meeting, to set up and advertise a hotline for women who suffer discrimination or attacks on public transportation.

Finally, she asked the police to instruct its members to be on the lookout for any offenses against women intended to exclude them from the public square.

Yair Ettinger contributed to this report