Justice: I believe the word 'rabbis' should reflect reality

High Court rules women can fill ‘rabbi’ slots in Chief Rabbinate’s top bodies

Decision stops short of imposing female representation, but angers critics who accuse the justices of ‘aggressive’ overreach

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau's father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau's father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

Women may serve on the top council of the Chief Rabbinate and as “rabbis” on the assembly that elects Israel’s chief rabbis, the High Court of Justice ruled Sunday.

The court ruled that, in the context of that assembly, the term “rabbi” applies not only to the recipients of that title from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate — which bestows it only on men — but also to individuals, including women, with knowledge of the Torah and halacha, the Jewish legal code, comparable to that of the men.

Though it heralds little short-term change in female representation at the Rabbinate, the ruling carries a broader significance in the tense relationship between the conservative religious authority and its advocates, and the more liberal and secular-oriented court.

Under the ruling, which a panel of three justices passed with one dissenting opinion, women and others whom the Rabbinate does not recognize as rabbis may nonetheless be appointed to occupy the position of “rabbi” on the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly. The ruling means that women may also serve on the Chief Rabbinate Council, a governing body of 10 rabbis who act as an ultimate arbitration body in all halacha and Rabbinate-related matters.

The Council currently has no women on it. Women are underrepresented in the Election Assembly, but they do make up about 10 percent of its 150 members, according to a 2021 essay by Bar-Ilan University’s Rackman Center, which promotes the status of women in matters of family law and filed the petition on which the High Court ruled Sunday.

Waiting for the High Court justices to arrive, December 4 (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Waiting for High Court justices to arrive in the courtroom. (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

As per a 1980 law, the assembly is made up of two categories of representatives: “rabbis,” who are all men because the term has been treated as pertaining to the Orthodox definition that precludes women, and “public representatives,” who account for all females in the Assembly. In its petition, the Rackman Center argued that women should be allowed to serve in the Assembly not only in the “public representative” category — which accounts for 70 out of the 150 Assembly delegates — but also as “rabbis.”

The court concurred, saying that the roles should be open to women. It stopped short of decreeing that women be appointed as rabbis to the Assembly or the Council. Whereas the ruling makes the nomination of women to these bodies possible, it is unlikely that the deeply conservative and Orthodox Rabbinate will go ahead and make such nominations in the foreseeable future.

Daphne Barak-Erez presides at a court hearing at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Daphne Barak-Erez wrote in her opinion: “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. Some of those women carry out rabbinical duties in their communities. I believe that the interpretation of the word ‘rabbis’ should reflect this reality.”

Barak-Erez noted that one historical archaic understanding of the word “rabbi” means simply a teacher.

Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit during a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, in a petition against the dismissal of Postal Company Chairman Mishael Vaknin, January 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Isaac Amit also ruled in favor of the petition.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice David Mintz wrote that he was ruling against the petition because “the point of departure is that this court does not wear the hat of the Chief Rabbinate, which has the ultimate halachic authority.”

The Rackman Center celebrated the ruling as “an important development,” as did Kolech, an Orthodox feminist group. Kolech, in a statement, 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 fling a position whose essence is unity.”

Critics, however, decried the ruling as an overreach by a court they accuse of routinely overruling democratically passed laws and other provisions in an attempt to impose a secularist and liberal agenda. These claims lie at the heart of the societal clash that had rocked Israel throughout most of 2023 during the government’s judicial overhaul, before this issue was sidelined by Hamas’s onslaught against Israel on October 7.

“Another aggressive intervention and distorted interpretation by the High Court of Justice,” Shimon Shmueli, a lawyer and treasurer of the Bat Yam Religious Council – the office of the Chief Rabbinate in that large suburb of Tel Aviv – wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Sunday. “The letter of the law explicitly says, in clause 7(8), that the appointees are ‘rabbis.’ But they [the court justices] twist the lawbook whichever way they feel like.”

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