Breaking up is hard to do. Picking who makes that break up official, it seems, might be just as difficult in the State of Israel.

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 Knesset meeting on September 10, which began at noon, was described by a committee member as “very politically charged.”

By 3 a.m., 22 out of the 24 vacant positions on the regional courts — which determine marriage and divorce cases under Israel’s status quo agreement — were filled, with three of the more liberal candidates left out, courtesy of a veto by the ultra-Orthodox members of the committee and backed by its chair, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.

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.”

Rabbinical court advocate Rachel Levmore (left) (screen capture: YouTube)

Rabbinical court advocate Rachel Levmore (left) (screen capture: YouTube)

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.

Rabbi David Stav, the head of the Tzohar religious-Zionist organization, told The Times of Israel that the rabbinical judges determine the severity of sanctions against recalcitrant husbands, and stressed that it was essential to appoint candidates who are in touch with the non-Orthodox Israeli society.

On a more basic level, Stav said the delays in divorce proceedings — in part due to the dearth of rabbinical judges and the failure of the committee to appoint new ones in the past four years — inadvertently leads to infidelity in the eyes of Jewish law, which views the couples as married until the process is complete.

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. June 20, 2013. (Flash 90, File)

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. June 20, 2013. (Flash 90, File)

“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.

Levmore said that on a technical level, having more judges will likely expedite the divorce process, but on a “deeper level,” namely whether the rulings will be swift and lenient, “that remains to be seen.”

The rabbinical judges in the regional courts also ultimately determine, for the purposes of marriage and divorce, who is a Jew, Levmore said.

“Even if Diaspora Jews today think the halachic approach of the Israeli rabbinic courts have no bearing on their lives, whether someone is married or divorced, or whether someone can get a divorce, or whether their conversion is valid and therefore they can get married, or whether it is invalid and therefore they do not need a divorce because they’re not even Jewish — the rabbinic courts determine who is a Jew ultimately,” she said.

While Jews around the world may not be directly affected, should their offspring opt to move to the Jewish state, their personal status will likely be determined by these very Orthodox judges, she said. And because of the absence of a centralized religious authority in the Diaspora, Orthodox judges abroad turn to Jerusalem’s High Court of Appeals to weigh in on particularly difficult cases, which can in turn, have ramifications on Orthodox rabbinical courts outside of Israel.

Jerusalem’s High Court of Appeals is the “sole centralized body that is accepted in Orthodox circles all over the world today,” she said.

Who are the candidates?

By the morning of September 11, both the ultra-Orthodox members of the committee – including the two chief rabbis, two rabbinical judges, and United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler – and the other Knesset representatives sang the praises of the appointees.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the candidates were all “terrific,” while Zionist Union MK Revital Swid said the decisions represented a “tremendous victory for the broader public that I represent.” The judges “will change the character of the rabbinical courts for decades to come,” she noted.

Stav told The Times of Israel as the committee was meeting that the distribution of rabbinical judges in accordance with the three political parties was “shameful,” but not particularly new. The new “audacity,” he added, is the ultra-Orthodox effort to determine who the religious Zionist judges would be. However, once announced, Tzohar praised the religious Zionist appointees in a statement.

Meanwhile, Levmore said “many of them [are] good candidates, some of them excellent,” while lamenting the ultra-Orthodox veto on three candidates they deemed to be too “liberal,” but who Levmore said were proven to be “trailblazers” on matters of Jewish law.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau (R) and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Jerusalem on September 4, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau (R) and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Jerusalem on September 4, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

She said that among the eight religious Zionist candidates, seven had served in combat roles in the Israel Defense Forces, one had won a medal of honor, and one held a doctorate in philosophy. Moreover, for the first time, an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical judge — Avidan Shpanier — who held an academic degree was appointed, in a dramatic departure from Haredi opposition to religious judicial figures having a secular higher education.

Under the regulations of the rabbinic appointments panel, candidates with an academic background and army service are meant to be favored, she said, but in practice only two of the 22 met both criteria.

Among the ultra-Orthodox factions, the prevention of the appointment of the three controversial figures, who they said were affiliated with Tzohar (though two of the three had very tenuous connections with the religious Zionist organization), was met with a sigh of relief.

According to Levmore, candidate Nir Vargon was written off because he wrote a Jewish legal opinion for a Knesset panel debating how long a period officials who were convicted of “moral turpitude” must wait before assuming office again. Shas leader and Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, who served a three-year jail sentence for corruption, viewed Vargon’s stance as a direct attack on him and reportedly said Vargon would be made a rabbinical judge “over my dead body.” David Bass was discredited by the Haredim for his rulings on conversion, and Benayahu Bonner for his affiliation with Tzohar, she said.

Levmore said that while among the appointees there were “potential trailblazers,” the three nixed candidates were proven trailblazers. “Among the religious Zionist candidates, I believe there are potential trailblazers, I believe that several of the Haredi appointments, whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi, are excellent, but I don’t know if they will have the courage to be trailblazers.”

Shaked, for her part, said it was unfortunate that Bass had lost “by one point, but that’s democracy.”

An empty rabbinical 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.

When it came to the discussions of the High Court appointees, there were “no negotiations of other candidates because it was all eyes on Uriel Lavi,” said Levmore. The meeting was dismissed without any appointments, and no further meeting has yet been scheduled to continue the debate.

By January, all of the sitting members of the rabbinical high court will have resigned, said Levmore. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef will likely appoint temporary justices then, but the split opposition and staunch support for Lavi in the committee makes the High Court rabbinic appointments, the equivalent of Israel’s High Court for religious matters, a distant prospect.