Photo Credit: Batya Kahana Dror

by Andrew Friedman

Feminist groups, civil rights organizations, MKs and modern Orthodox groups said a High Court of Justice ruling Wednesday that a woman can serve as the director-general of the state’s rabbinic courts marked an “historic breakthrough” that would ramp up the court’s’ standing in the eyes of many Israelis.

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Recently-retired Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who returned to the bench in order to rule on a case that began before he left the court, wrote in his decision that “there is a great value in opening the rabbinic courts for women to serve in administrative roles, not only for women but it also serves to strengthen the public’s faith in the [rabbinic] courts, which is an essential element to the court’s functioning.

“[The court’s services are used by] women and men, Orthodox and secular alike. Expanding the variety of people serving in key roles will create a framework that is more responsive and equitable. That will benefit the entire country,” said MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), a prominent voice for Orthodox feminism and the author of the 2005 book A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book.

Batya Kahana-Dror, the director-general of Mevoi Satum who submitted the original court petition after the rabbinic court refused to even discuss her application, added that the ruling would be a landmark moment in the fight for Jewish and democratic values in Israel, and for Israeli women, who suffer discrimination at the rabbinic courts. She agreed with Aliza Lavie, who said the Rabbinic Court is “run, almost in its entirety, by men, for men,” and said the decision would serve as a first “crack” towards breaking that monopoly.

“This is the first time that gender discrimination in an area that is ruled by the religious establishment has been defined as a blow to the basic rights of equality. I hope that this decision will in future become a guiding principle in all areas regarding religion in the State of Israel,” Kahana-Dror said.

“It would have been great if this issue had been resolved amicably between the sides rather than by the court,” Lavie said. “But now that the court has ruled, I praise it and call on the minister [ed-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked] to implement the decision with clear guidelines.”

But Haredi parties were quick to slam the decision, and said they would resist implementing it. MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), chairman of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, said the lawsuit had nothing to do with fighting discrimination against women, but was rather about harming the standing of the rabbinic courts.

“The job of director-general of the rabbinic court is not merely an administrative position,” Maklev said. “It is a job that requires a broad knowledge of Jewish law (halacha) . . . they weren’t worried about the fact that no woman has ever been nominated to serve as director-general of the Supreme Court, despite the fact that there are female justices on the Court.

“So the move doesn’t stem from a desire for equality, but rather out of hatred and a desire to weaken the rabbinic courts. It is inconceivable that we would approve someone for such a sensitive position who lacked a depth of halachic knowledge or who is hostile towards religion, towards the rabbinic establishment or towards Jewish law as it has always been practiced,” Maklev said.

Responding to MK Maklev’s threat not to implement the ruling, Rabbi Uri Regev, the founder of Hiddush, a non-denominational group dedicated to promoting religious freedom and diversity and a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism welcomed the ruling but also warned against “over-celebrating” the decision.

“Certainly, the ultra-Orthodox political kingmakers will not welcome this verdict,” Regev said. “It is likely to become part of the endless and tireless political campaign to castrate Israel’s independent supreme judicial authority, which is being waged by the ultra-Orthodox political parties and extremist political groups.”

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