Rabbinical Court Job Tender Nixed After Lawyer Cites Discrimination

A 28-year-old religious female lawyer recently forced the Civil Service Commission to cancel a rabbinical court job tender on the grounds that it discriminates against women. Naama Safrai-Cohen says she intends to open the rabbinical court system to women employees.

Safrai-Cohen grew up in Kibbutz Yavneh, a religious kibbutz near Ashdod. She has a master's degree in Hebrew law and possesses extensive knowledge of Jewish fiscal and family laws. However, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Appeals Court refused to obtain her services as legal aide. In a job tender for the post, published several weeks ago, the court specified certification from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as one of the requirements from applicants. However, the rabbinate certifies only men as rabbis and rabbinical judges.

On April 17, the last day to apply, Safrai-Cohen petitioned the Jerusalem Labor Court to order the Civil Service Commission and the Rabbinical Court Administration to cancel the tender. Her petition held that the tender violated the principle of equality and basic liberty of occupation, as the petitioner, who qualified in every other respect, was barred from applying due to the requirement for a rabbinate certification. The tender was nixed the next day, before the court began to review the case.

The court nonetheless deliberated on the matter. Safrai-Cohen, represented by attorney Suzanne Weis of the Center for Women's Justice, demanded the tender be corrected to allow the petitioner and other women to apply for the job. The court ordered the state to respond to Safrai-Cohen's claims within 30 days.

"It is unacceptable for the State of Israel to issue a tender that bars women from applying," Safrai-Cohen, who defines herself as a religious feminist, told Haaretz. "My knowledge is comparable to that of any rabbi or rabbinical judge, whereas most of them lack my legal education. The state should prefer aides who are knowledgeable both on religious and secular laws," she explains. "After all, the rulings of the rabbinical court must agree with the laws of state."

Considering her background, one can easily understand why Safrai-Cohen took this particular struggle upon her self. Her mother was one of the founding members of the religious-feminist organization Kolech. Her father, professor Ze'ev Safrai, is an authority on woman's rights in Judaism.

Despite her young age, Safrai-Cohen is already a veteran promoter of women's rights. She followed in her mother's footsteps and joined Kolech, and also took part in the Israeli Bar Association (IsraelBar) committee for the promotion of women's rights. "Rabbinical courts remain off-limits for women. They don't even hire female stenographers, and I intend to change that. But I didn't think the state would join in this discrimination," she says.