Bills to ban hametz, expand powers of rabbinic courts breeze through committee

AG comes out against proposal criminalizing bringing leavened goods into hospitals during Passover; groups representing ‘chained’ women oppose letting rabbis adjudicate civil cases

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Workers prepare matzah, the unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, at the Aviv Matzah plant in Bnei Brak on April 14, 2019. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Workers prepare matzah, the unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, at the Aviv Matzah plant in Bnei Brak on April 14, 2019. (Flash90)

Two contentious religion-and-state bills were approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, one forbidding bringing leavened goods into public hospitals during the Passover holiday and another expanding the powers of rabbinic courts.

Both government-sponsored bills have met fierce resistance, including from some religious groups, seeing them as likely to antagonize Israelis against Judaism.

The bill banning the entrance of leavened goods, or hametz, during Passover was also opposed by the Attorney General’s Office, which found that in its current form the legislation goes too far and would be difficult to defend in court.

With their approval by the committee, the two bills will proceed to the Knesset, where they are likely to pass, though they could still undergo slight changes.

Tying the bills to the government’s planned judicial overhaul, MK Moshe Gafni, of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, who was behind both bills, said they were necessary to combat rulings by the High Court of Justice, which prevented hospitals from forbidding people from bringing in leavened goods during Passover and prevented state-run rabbinic courts from adjudicating civil disputes, respectively.

“This is further proof of where the Supreme Court has come in intervening in issues that are not under its purview. Today, we are fixing that with legislation that will be brought to a vote later this week in the plenary of the Knesset,” Gafni said.

Opposition MKs lambasted the bills, calling them “religious coercion” and “pure provocation.”

“The hametz law and the law expanding the authorities of the rabbinic courts that were approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation today are just the start of the wave of unprecedented religious coercion,” said Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv.

He too tied this legislation to the government’s planned judicial overhaul, saying that more changes to religion-and-state would come “once the legal advisers and courts are dramatically weakened.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky said the hametz bill was unnecessary and counterproductive, calling it “a finger in the eye and pure provocation.”

“Just like there’s no law against driving on Yom Kippur, but people still respect it and don’t drive on that day, so too with hametz. Now people will purposefully try to bring in and sneak in hametz to hospitals,” she said.

For years, hospitals and other public institutions banned hametz during the week-long Passover holiday — when Jews traditionally refrain from eating leavened goods — with some even instructing guards to search people’s bags for forbidden foods at the doors. But in 2020, the High Court of Justice declared that hospitals could not conduct such invasive searches — after years of pushing the government to find some compromise or pass some legislation on the issue — and last year the court issued a similar ruling regarding army bases.

The legislation approved by the committee Sunday — proposed by Gafni, as well as fellow UTJ members Yaakov Asher and Yitzhak Pindrus — would not only permit public hospitals to ban hametz, but would require them to do so.

“During the period of Passover, no hametz or other food — other than that which is in line with the directives set by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel — will be allowed in or held in a medical facility,” the bill reads.

In an opinion, two legal advisers from the Attorney General’s Office warned that the bill “as it is written today raises significant legal difficulties,” as it would not only ban leavened foods but all foods, save for fresh produce and packaged foods marked “kosher for Passover,” which would infringe on the rights of patients and their guests — and, because it would force hospital security guards to do something they were not hired to do, infringing on their rights as well.

The legal advisers recommend further consideration “to find alternative solutions that would fulfill the underlying goals of the bill but without the state unnecessarily infringing on [civil] rights.”

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For example, they suggested limiting the law to only apply to leavened goods like bread as opposed to all food, or leaving the legislation more ambiguous to allow the hospitals and the Chief Rabbinate to determine how to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a liberal Orthodox group, decried the bill, as well as the decision to bring it for a vote during a particularly strained period when there are deep divisions within the population over the government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

“The decision to specifically bring the hametz law to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation now, instead of lowering the flames, is not expected to add any honor to the coming Passover holiday but will instead increase the fighting,” the group wrote.

“There are a number of solutions that do not require peeking around in people’s personal bags, as was done in different hospitals in the past. Laws like this that impose religion and get into people’s personal lives never bring people closer to Judaism and they are ultimately a boomerang that weakens the Judaism of the state,” it said.

Opposition MK Matan Kahana, a former religious services minister, has ridiculed the bill, saying it will almost surely have the opposite effect, with people intentionally bringing in leavened products as a challenge to the law.

“If you want to ensure that people will bring hametz into hospitals, please accept Gafni’s request,” Kahana wrote in a tweet when the law was first proposed.

The second bill approved by the committee would expand the powers of state-run rabbinic courts, giving them the authority to again hear civil cases.

Until 2006, state-run rabbinic courts could hear such cases — disputes between workers and employees, between businesses, or between landlords and renters, for instance — but the High Court found that the rabbinic judges did not have legal authority to do so and they were stripped of that power. Currently, rabbinic judges are limited to overseeing marriage and divorce proceedings for all Jewish Israelis, as well as certain issues dealing with conversions, and occasionally with wills and inheritances. Private rabbinic courts could still hear civil cases if both parties agreed.

The bill that was supported by the Shas party, though officially put forward by Gafni, would restore the power of state-run rabbinic courts to adjudicate civil matters, provided both sides agree.

The proposal has greater support than the hametz law, including from the opposition, but faces significant criticism from religious pluralism groups and organizations that represent so-called “chained” women, whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, also known as a get, and are thus left unable to remarry or otherwise move on with their lives.

In a joint letter, nine religious advocacy groups — ITIM, Mavoi Satum, Center for Women’s Justice, the Masorti Movement, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, Chupot, Kolech, the Schechter Institute’s Center for Women in Jewish Law, and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women — came out strongly against the proposal, warning that the rabbinic courts are undemocratic and that there is no way to ensure that both sides had truly agreed to having rabbinic judges rule on a case.

“There is concern that in many cases, the weaker of the parties, particularly women, will be forced to agree to arbitration,” they wrote.

In their letter, addressed to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the organizations noted that currently only men can serve as rabbinic judges and that they are not committed to modern concepts of justice and fairness.

“Please recall that Torah law as it is implemented by state-run rabbinic courts today is discriminatory against and problematic for women and others,” they wrote.

This is particularly true in the case of divorce, where a husband must agree to give a religious divorce or else his wife will never be able to remarry, whereas a man can be given special dispensation to remarry even if his wife refuses to accept a divorce.

In light of this power disparity, men can use the threat of withholding a religious divorce to extort better divorce conditions, such as not having to pay alimony or child support or forcing women to give up their rights to shared property. This kind of maneuvering is far more difficult to do in civil courts than in religious ones.

“We can say almost certainly that expanding the powers of rabbinic courts will put yet another powerful weapon in the hands of husbands, who will have support from rabbinic courts to demand their case be arbitrated according to Torah law as a reasonable and even desirable condition for divorce,” the organizations wrote.

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