Israel’s Supreme Court cracks open door to female participation in state rabbinate

(RNS) — Women may be considered rabbis for the purpose of electing the country’s chief rabbi, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last week.

The ruling, issued Jan. 14, states that women should be eligible to fill seats designated for rabbis in the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly, the 150-member body that votes every 10 years to select the leaders of the state’s rabbinate, which has sweeping power over Jewish ritual or law, and over such issues as overseeing marriages and divorce. It has also sometimes claimed purview over Jewish life outside Israel.

“The revolution in Torah studies by women means that in the reality of life today, many women have Torah education that matches that of men who have been certified as rabbis,” Justice Daphne Barak-Erez wrote in her opinion, noting that the original meaning of the word “rabbi” simply means teacher.

She added, “Some of those women carry out rabbinical duties in their communities. I believe that the interpretation of the word ‘rabbis’ should reflect this reality.”

Eighty of the assembly’s 150 seats are reserved for rabbis, while the other 70 can be filled by any public representative. Fifteen of the lay seats are currently filled by women. The body is scheduled in April to choose the country’s two chief rabbis for the next 10-year term. 

The case was brought before the Court in a petition by Bar Ilan University’s Ruth and Emanuel Rakman Center. Part of the university’s law school, the Rakman Center promotes the rights of women in Israeli law and combats gender discrimination. Emanuel Rakman, a former president of the university who died in 2008, was an American Modern Orthodox rabbi who was a staunch advocate for equalizing the rights of women in Orthodox Judaism.

The center’s initial petition noted that many of the male rabbis chosen for the assembly are not credentialed as rabbis by the rabbinate, though they do serve in rabbinic roles for their communities.

“Today’s ruling is an important step like no other in the establishment’s recognition that Halacha women are an integral part of the Torah world, a part that must also be given representation and a position of influence on the lives of the entire Jewish public in Israel,” Karen Horowitz, CEO of the Rakman Center, said in a response to the ruling

“As part of the petition, we showed that there are worthy women with extensive halachic knowledge who wish to take part in the electoral assembly, and we call on the chief rabbis to examine their candidacy as soon as possible,” Horowitz added. 

Kolach, an Orthodox feminist organization in Israel, called the ruling “a necessary correction for the state of Israel, where female students are full partners in spreading and furthering the teaching of the Torah, and there is no reason why they should be denied the possibility of electing the envoys of the public’s servants filling a position whose essence is unity,” according to the Times of Israel

Women rabbis are common in the United States among non-Orthodox denominations but are rare in Israel, where denominations like Reform and Conservative Judaism have a much smaller following and have for decades struggled for recognition from the state. 

Nonetheless, in recent years, there has been a growing movement among Modern Orthodox Jews to create education and pastoral roles for women similar to those of rabbis, even if they don’t use the same name. 

Orly Erez-Likhovski, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal advocacy arm in Israel, applauded the court’s decision but cautioned that it is not a sign of a wider welcome for non-Orthodox Jews.

“Any ruling which protects the rights of women in any context, especially in religious contexts and within Orthodox Judaism, is tremendously important,” Likhovski said. “But I’m afraid that it’s still going to be a long road in order for women to be part of this body selecting the rabbis.”

Indeed, while the Supreme Court’s ruling allows women to fill any of the 80 seats on the assembly reserved for rabbis, it stopped short of compelling the rabbinate to actually appoint any, and the rabbinate, which has long been a bastion of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, is unlikely to do so. 

“It’s a completely Orthodox or even Ultra-Orthodox body which has become more and more radical over the years,” Likhovski said.

As a result, many Israelis have found ways to circumvent the chief rabbinate’s hold on religious affairs. “Today, truly, very few Israelis relate to the chief rabbinate. Even a lot of people who define themselves as Orthodox feel alienated by it as it’s become more extremist,” Likhovski added.

Previous ArticleNext Article