To Reform Israel's Rabbinical Courts, Women's Voice Must Be Heard

Zehava Galon
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Ultra-Orthodox women in the northern town of Harish, two months ago.
Zehava Galon

The opposition shot down the coalition’s bill on religious court judges last week, and the media was preoccupied with a marginal issue: the fact that Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy mistakenly voted with the opposition. The focus on this error shows that the media has long been busy with soccer-style commentary in politics – who scored a goal against whom, who scored a goal for the other team by mistake. But this issue is crucial for us.

Since Israel’s establishment, the reactionary rabbinate has controlled all issues of personal status. There’s no civil marriage, and of course no same-sex marriage. After 70 years of this, we can say with certainty that the political establishment wants to continue the rule of the rabbis – in total opposition to the opinion of most of the public.

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So these are the tools we have to work with, and that’s why the bill that was rejected was so important. In 2013, lawmakers Aliza Lavi and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli proposed a bill that would require that women also serve on the rabbinical court judges appointment committee. The bill only passed because the ultra-Orthodox parties were not in the coalition. Now, the new coalition wanted to neutralize the ultra-Orthodox presence from the Knesset representation on the committee and to double the number of female rabbinical pleaders on the committee. That would only raise the number of female rabbinical pleaders from one to two – instead of the desired situation in which women would constitute half the committee. (The committee has 13 members at present, only one of whom is a woman).

Rabbinical court judges decide fates every day. The Netanya Rabbinical Court ordered children removed from the home of an “adulterous” woman without even bothering to hear her side. And why should it? Jewish law says women are flighty and are not valid as witnesses. After a public outcry arose, the court quickly changed its decision. Any regular court judge who would have acted in this way would likely have lost the judgeship. That is not the case for rabbinical court judges.

A decade ago, a rabbinical court judge ruled that a woman who had “dealt in witchcraft” would lose half of the money entitled to her by her ketubah. The rabbinical courts had not yet been informed that in Europe people already realized back at the end of the 17th century that there’s no such thing as witches. The positive side in this is that rabbinical courts do not have the authority to impose the death sentence; if they did, “witches” would already have been hanged here.

The status of women in Jewish law is a disgrace. Orthodox nationalist rabbis work to keep women from voting and running for office. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, when she was justice minister, appointed the first woman Muslim religious court judge. Under the current circumstances, there is no chance of appointing a woman as a judge in a Jewish religious court, even though everyone knows the solution in Jewish law (declaring every modern woman a “great woman” who can act with men; they have been talking about this for more than 50 years). Every modern woman is more educated than the rabbis of the Talmud, but that’s not something we can say around here.

That is why it’s so important to appoint women to the committee that selects rabbinical court judges. Women constitute 51 percent of the population; they are the majority; they are under the authority of the rabbinical court judges, who are still stuck in the early Byzantine period. If women appoint rabbinical court judges, we want to know what their rulings have been: What is their opinion about women in the modern era; what is their solution to the outrageous injustice of “chained” women, whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce; what are their positions on the idea of bringing witnesses who are “invalid” according to Jewish law to wedding ceremonies, so that if need be, the marriage can be dissolved as invalid from the beginning. How broad-minded are they, how conservative? If we are unwillingly under the authority of the rabbinical court system, give us at least the opportunity to choose its judges.

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