At Long Last….

Despite political wranglings and machinations, 22 new Rabbinic Court  judges (dayanim) were recently appointed to the Rabbinic Court (Beit Din) system in Israel. This is the judicial forum in which all Jewish couples in Israel must divorce (divorce in the narrowest sense – the actual dissolution of the marriage).  Some couples also adjudicate issues relating to the end of the marriage, such as property, alimony and issues pertaining to children in the Beit Din.

As noted in the previous post, there is a tremendous shortage of dayanim, and a terrible backlog of cases.

Marissa Newman of the Times of Israel covered this development in an unfortunately predictable trope – the bad guys are the haredi (ultra-orthodox) dayanim, the better dayanim are from the less haredi world, and the haredi dayanim don’t understand what’s going on in Israeli society. These are all stereotypes and caricatures, and don’t lead to a serious understanding of the problems with the Beit Din, of which there are many.

Following a four year stalemate, it took just 15 hours earlier this month for lawmakers to carry out a major overhaul of Israel’s rabbinical courts, possibly paving the way for “historic” changes in the body that controls divorces for the country’s Jewish citizens.

While the judges were picked by party line, as part of an agreement between the three major religious Knesset factions, the move could still change the way Israelis wind their way through the sometimes byzantine divorce process, activists and others say….

…The total amounted to roughly one-third of Israeli religious judges sitting on divorce courts.

Eight of the picks were from the religious Zionist community, and 14 were ultra-Orthodox, seven Ashkenazi and eight Sephardic — corresponding roughly to one-third for the three political parties in the Knesset: Shas, United Torah Judaism, and the Jewish Home.

The seven slots for the Rabbinical High Court of Appeals, which requires eight of 11 votes to approve a candidate, were left vacant as the four female candidates on the committee and the ultra-Orthodox members faced off in opposing blocs, and with the debate centered on a rabbinical judge who issued a divorce last year to a woman whose husband was in a vegetative state — a ruling that was deemed revolutionary by supporters, and radical by the Haredi opposition.

According to Dr. Rachel Levmore, a committee member and director of the Agunah Prevention Project of the Young Israel movement and Jewish Agency, the appointments were nothing less than a “historic occurrence” that will determine the religious character of the courts and personal status issues for “generations to come.”

With the approval of roughly one-third of all rabbinical judges in Israel determined in just one day, the ramifications of the appointments on world Jewry, as well as Israelis, are immense, the rabbinical court advocate maintained. And with two positions left open for regional rabbinical judges, and seven for the High Court of Appeals, it is “imperative” Diaspora Jewry make their voices heard, she said.

“The appointment of a full third of the dayanim [rabbinical judges] in the Israeli rabbinical courts will determine the halachic [Jewish law] approach regarding personal status for generations to come, not only for the Jews living in Israel, but for Jews the world over,” said Levmore.
Why it matters

The fate of “chained” women, or agunot, whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, or religious bill of divorce, largely rests in the hands of the religious divorce courts. The courts can level financial sanctions against the recalcitrant husbands, or sentence them to jail until they comply. Without the religious divorce, the women are barred from remarrying in the State of Israel.

These “husbandless wives,” as Levmore termed them, are often stuck in limbo for years. Prior to the committee meeting, some 30 agunot penned a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imploring the committee to appoint “moderate judges” who will find innovative legal loopholes to extricate them from their marriages.

This is one of the problems of the discourse around the Beit Din in particular and Family Law in general in the State of Israel. The headline we all like to see and around which we can all rally is the problem of agunot. However, most couples get their actual divorce within a reasonable period of time, and without giving in the extortion in exchange for a get (religious bill of divorce). What often feels like an almost exclusive focus on this issue – which must be addressed – detracts attention from the problems relating to children, inefficiency over the division of property and incoherent judicial policy regarding child support, to name a few.

In addition, pro-active dayanim who are ready and willing to take on recalcitrant husbands (or wives) are not, in my professional experience, a function of where they align themselves on the religious spectrum.

The article goes on to quote Rabbi David Stav, the head of the Tzohar religious-Zionist organization:

“The divorce courts are mostly comprised of people who live in a closed Haredi world, and do not understand what’s happening around them. They don’t understand that when they delay divorce proceedings in secular society, it has terrible ramifications. It causes women to betray their husbands and husbands to betray their wives. They don’t understand that every delay is a catastrophe,” he said.

With all respect to Rabbi Stav, the notion that the more ultra-orthodox dayanim sitting in the beit din don’t understand that the delays in divorce proceedings may lead to infidelity is a notion – pardon the pun – divorced from reality, to say the least. They see people every day from all walks of life, listen to the news and are well aware that people may not maintain fidelity to their spouses through divorce proceedings. And is this really the primary quality that we want in our dayanim and judges? I would like to ask candidates  – do they understand the impact of divorce on children? Are they aware of the manifestations and ramifications of emotional abuse? Do they understand the need to make decisions quickly?

About to return to my desk after this major holiday season in Israel, I look forward to a flurry of notices from the Beit Din, decisions on petitions I filed months ago, and to a spate of hearings in cases which haven’t been heard due to the shortage of dayanim.

Unfortunately, though the latest round of appointments has filled some of the spaces in the Regional Rabbinic Courts, there were no appointment for the Rabbinic High Court.

The ultra-Orthodox members of the committee, however, were not the only ones to band together to block appointments. When it came to the High Court appointments, which require eight out of 11 votes rather than a simple majority, the women on the panel — Shaked, Swid, Levmore, and bar association representative Efrat Rosenblatt — insisted that Rabbi Uriel Lavi be appointed.

Under a 2013 law, the committee was required to have at least four female representatives — a minister, a Knesset member, bar association representative and court advocate. The September 10-11 meeting had the largest female representation ever on the committee, and presenting a unified front on the subject, the High Court appointments were deadlocked.

Lavi, a rabbinical judge in Safed, came under fire by the ultra-Orthodox after he granted a divorce to a woman whose husband was in a persistent vegetative state for six years, with the approval of his family.

Rav Lavi is a wonderful dayan, and it’s  a loss to the system that his appointment has thus far been blocked.

Let’s hope that the movers and shakers in charge can see their way to making the appropriate High Court appointments in the near future, to unclog this system.


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