“Breaching the Walls of the Rabbinical Courts”
by Pnina Omer
Israel Hayom Op-Ed – 9/8/2016
Yet again, the High Court of Justice has been forced to intervene to prevent gender discrimination in a religious institution, this time deciding to mandate that the rabbinical courts appoint a woman to the position of deputy director general. Since women are not permitted to serve as rabbinical court judges, the High Court was offering a type of compromise in an effort to balance things.
Why is it so hard for these courts to contemplate the idea of a woman in a leadership role? What is behind this gender-based struggle over directorship of an organization? Is the practice of shutting women out religiously motivated, or is it just a defense of the last bastion of masculinity?
Since the dawn of history, women have been kept at arm’s length from the heart of Jewish thought and contemplation. Torah study was reserved for men, and because they were the only ones allowed to study it, they were the only ones equipped to rule on matters of Halachah (Jewish law). But the world went and changed. In the 1960s, women began integrating into the workforce, acquiring higher educations and practicing professions. These changes did not skip over the religious world. The national-religious sector, seemingly, has already accepted women into its ranks on equal professional footings. The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector is following suit, but its conservative world view regarding a woman’s rightful place in society is a persistent hindrance. The path being dictated by reality runs completely counter to what generations of students have been taught about the nature of women, and it is disrupting world orders.
The work environment is a political arena. While women now have access to a range of professions, they are still being kept away from power centers and positions of authority. Men clone themselves. They choose other men similar to themselves for management positions and struggle to accept women (or minorities) into positions of influence. This is the glass ceiling — it is invisible and people are not always aware of its existence, but it is there and it influences who is hired or promoted all the time.
Around 20 years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was able to shatter the fortified wall and let women in as rabbinical pleaders (the equivalent of attorneys) in the rabbinical courts. He advanced women in a profession that demanded comprehensive halachic knowledge, and made it possible for them to argue cases before rabbinical judges on matters of religious law. Then, too, religious bodies opposed the move, and then, too, the High Court was asked to issue a ruling. Women can argue cases in rabbinical courts with a high degree of professionalism and halachic expertise, but they cannot serve in senior positions, even administrative ones. The rabbinical courts are predicated on an antiquated hierarchical ladder, which women have been unable to climb.
Last week, the High Court ruled that women must also be allowed to climb the rabbinical courts’ professional ladder. The High Court is the sledge hammer that women needed to break through the rabbinical courts’ cement wall. Someone outside this power group has now recognized that this struggle is neither professional nor religious. It is a power struggle over control. It is a struggle based on an unfounded division of gender roles, and it is neither right nor justified.
Pnina Omer is the director of OTS’s Yad L’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline.