Atara Kenigsberg, Could You Become Director of the Rabbinical Courts?

Kenigsberg, executive director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, and is fighting for a right still forbidden to women.

Women are demanding the right to serve as director of the rabbinical courts. One of the would-be candidates is Atara Kenigsberg, executive director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University. She has both an LLB and LLM degree from Bar-Ilan University. She has completed management courses and a social leadership course run by Columbia University, New York University and Manhattan's 92nd Street Y. She was also chosen for the U.S. State Department's 2009 International Visitors' Leadership Program.

Aren't you tilting at windmills in your struggle to have a woman appointed director general of the rabbinical courts?

Kenigsberg, Tali Mayer
Tali Mayer

No. It's an important and principled struggle. We believe there's a place for this. We all remember the [successful petition of ] Lea Shakdiel to the Supreme Court, which opened the way for women to sit on local religious councils; now is the time to open the door to women as the director of the rabbinical courts. The public is ready for this. Today there are women [civil court] judges, doctors, attorneys and university rectors. There's no reason why purely administrative posts cannot be open to women.

A woman cannot serve as a religious court judge, according to halakha (Jewish law ). How will the male judges respond

The office is administrative - just as they would accept any new administrator. There's no reason to refuse to work for one who is a woman. They are employed by the civil service, and there's no excuse for inequality in the civil service. I would also like to point out that the possibility of women working as religious judges is a halakhic issue; many rabbinical responses to these questions say a woman can be a rabbinical court judge.

There was an incident in the Petah Tikva rabbinical court in which a rabbi would not agree to a woman secretary. It does not appear the rabbis in the system will be prepared to accept the appointment of a woman, even if you win at the political level. How will you deal with this threat?

Judges are public servants. As public servants they must accept appointments made by the system. If they are not capable of accepting a particular appointment, then they should do some thinking about their place in the system.

Do you really believe you have a chance to be chosen? Does it seem to you the justice minister will give you an equal chance?

I have to underscore that I was summoned to the [search] committee [for an interview]. After my position paper was studied, I was interviewed. The committee treated me with respect but I believe my candidacy was considered only to fulfill its obligations. Despite our repeated approaches to the justice minister, he decided not to relate to the qualification issue - that is to the issue whether women can legally stand for this job.

If you are appointed, what kind of spirit and vision would you bring to the office?

I think the rabbinical courts in Israel serve as the crossroads of halakha and civil law at a difficult time in couples' lives; despite the courts' great importance, they suffer from the negative image of bureaucratic, unwelcoming places for men, and even more so for women. And so I would choose to continue the trend of the outgoing administrator to improve service to the public and change the court's image to better serve the system.

Some say it's time to leave the Orthodox world with its built-in discrimination against women and create a more equitable alternative, instead of trying to gain an inch and then another.

The world of Jewish Orthodoxy and halakha is largely egalitarian toward women. There are many interpretations of Jewish law. For example, there are many halakhic solutions to situations in which men refuse to grant divorces to their wives - clearly Orthodox and halakhic ones - that rabbis choose not to use. I believe we should stick to the Orthodox world and I have no doubt this world can be egalitarian.

It can be egalitarian but it's hard to ignore the discrimination against women that seems built-in. Women in the world of Reform Judaism or other streams are not forced to fight for such basics.

I am part of this world. I repeat: The Orthodox world is extremely important in my eyes, it is dear to me and I have no doubt that everything hinges on the interpretation of halakha. There are various existing interpretations enabling the equality of women. In this context I want to recall the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, an admired Orthodox rabbi who believed in the advancement of women in Judaism, who worked for this and even established a halakhic court to release agunot [women whose husbands have refused to divorce them]. However, he paid a price that not everyone is willing to pay.

What are your next steps?

"Getting the most out of the legal process, whether petitions to the High Court or through the Knesset and by increasing the public's awareness there is a place for the equality of women in this country in general and in halakha in particular.

Have your successes in recent years brought about any changes in the system?

Absolutely. We were part of the new law regarding division of capital, a change reducing the possibility of extorting money from women in return for a divorce. The Rackman Center is working for transparency in the rabbinical courts, including publicizing their decisions, and on passing a law to mandate written protocols of rabbinical court sessions. In general, the responses we've received from the public and religious sectors all through the process of [enabling] women candidates [to direct the rabbinical courts] have been positive. This is certainly the result of a lot of work that has been going on for years.

The secular public does not see the rabbinical courts as an address and are voting with their feet. Whoever goes there is ultra-Orthodox or very observant or has no choice. For whom are you fighting?

Israeli law allows only religious marriages, and statistics show that most [Jewish] citizens - secular ones, too - choose marriage according to the Laws of Moses and Israel as the one they want. In recent years there has been a phenomenon of living together without marrying or civil marriages chosen by the public that does not want to come to the rabbinical court. Many in the secular public are not aware that even when they marry in civil ceremonies, divorce must take place in rabbinical courts. Since most of the public does come to the rabbinical courts, it is of great importance to strengthen the public's trust in these courts. This is a genuine national mission, which is key to preserving the Jewish people.