Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, the former director general of rabbinic courts in Israel – a position he held for more than two decades – is running for Knesset in next week’s Israeli election. He is number four on the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, which according to polls should win between 12 and 15 seats. The Jewish Press interviewed him in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Press: Tell us a little about your life – family background, education, etc.
Rabbi Ben Dahan: I was born in Morocco in 1954 and immigrated to Israel with my parents when I was two years old. I grew up in Beer Sheva. I am the oldest of five boys, and since my mother worked outside the home, each of us sons had to help with the housework. This was much appreciated by my wife, Tova Taybowitz, a daughter of Holocaust survivors whom I met in the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
I received my BA in business administration from Touro College and my Masters in public affairs from Hebrew University. My semicha was conferred on me by Rabbi Shalom Mashash, zt”l, chief rabbi of Jerusalem and from Rabbis Avraham Shapira, zt”l, and Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l, chief rabbis of Israel.
I served in the Israel Defense Forces in the artillery corps, rising to the rank of major.
My wife and I were among the founders of the yishuv Chispin in the Golan Heights. At that time we were only eleven families living on the Syrian border. Today Chispin is a thriving village.
We have nine children, six girls and three boys.
How did you launch your career as a public sector rabbi?
When Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was appointed chief rabbi of Israel in 1983, he asked me to manage his office. I moved to Beit El in the Shomron with my family and worked for the chief rabbi. In 1989 I was appointed director general of the rabbinic courts, the batei din, a position directly under the chief rabbi himself. This put me in charge of all batei din in the country. I held this position for twenty-one years.
When I started out in that position, the rabbinic courts were a small part of the Religious Ministry. I turned it into an independent office and eventually succeeded in having it become its own unit in the Ministry of Justice. This gave me the opportunity to make many changes and implement many improvements in how the rabbinic courts were run.
On the simplest level, when I started there were very few women working in the rabbinic courts. When positions opened, if there was a qualified woman for the job I was inclined to hire her. When I left, more than forty percent of people working in the religious courts all over the country were women.
You’re known as someone who has focused on the problem of agunot.
I want to clarify the terms regarding women who are agunot and women who are refused a get.
In America and elsewhere outside Israel, the term agunah is used to refer to any woman who cannot get a get from her husband, and thus remains chained to a dead marriage.
In Israel, agunah refers to a woman whose husband is missing. He may be dead or he may have just run away and disappeared and no one knows where he is. We use the term mesoravot get for the women whose husbands refuse to give their wives a get even though they are no longer living together.
This difference in terminology has resulted in a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresenting of facts, especially when statements attributed to me are translated.
Concerning my work with agunot, when I entered office there were approximately five hundred women in Israel whose husbands were missing. I felt we needed to hire private investigators whose sole expertise was in finding missing people. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and it was a hard job for me to get the necessary funds allocated for this. But I made the argument that as a Jewish country we had to do whatever it takes to free these women.
We succeeded in finding many of these men and getting gittin for their wives. In my twenty-one years as head of the rabbinic courts, more than one thousand women in this category were freed through our finding their runaway husbands and delivering the get to them.