Women get a voice in Israel’s vote for chief rabbi. It may not save a deeply unpopular institution.

(RNS) — Israel’s minister of religious affairs, Michael Malchieli, announced last week that he would commit to appointing 10 women to seats in the 150-member assembly responsible for electing Israel’s two chief rabbis, ahead of the next election this summer. 

The rabbinate, headed by a duo of chief rabbis, has sweeping power over the many state functions that intersect with Jewish law in Israel, from setting kosher standards to overseeing marriage and divorce. Its budget accounts for half a percent of the national budget. 

The assembly reserves 70 seats for public representatives, including members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and heads of local regional councils. The other 80 seats are filled by rabbis, chosen by the rabbinate itself.

The 70 seats for public officials have always been open to women, but women have seldom been equally represented even on that side of the council, giving them nearly no voice in who runs religious affairs.

The decision comes after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in January that religiously educated women should be eligible for the 80 rabbinic seats, even though the staunchly Orthodox rabbinate does not acknowledge that women can be rabbis.

Michael Malchieli. (Photo by Yakov Cohen/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Michael Malchieli. (Photo by Yakov Cohen/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

The court, while ruling women are eligible, did not compel the rabbinate to appoint any. But Malchieli, a Knesset member representing the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, conceded to pressure from groups such as Emunah, a social services agency affiliated with the Religious Zionist movement and focused on women’s issues, which said in a May 29 public letter to Malchieli:

Despite the fact that the Chief Rabbinate provides services for both genders in a variety of fields, some of which are even designated only for the female public, the Law of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel does not include a provision guaranteeing adequate representation for women in the Electoral Assembly.

In 2013, Emunah lobbied the rabbinate to allow women to serve as kosher supervisors, a job that is monopolized by the rabbinate in Israel. 

“I am hopeful that this will be the beginning of a binding tradition and another step to deepen the representation and involvement of women in the assembly that elects the Chief Rabbinate,” Emunah’s chair, Yifat Sela, told The Jerusalem Post.

Despite the women’s appointment, not all are hopeful that it will make much of a difference in Israel’s religious policies. Malchieli’s appointments, which include several more seats than just the 10 women, are all expected to vote in line with the wishes of his religiously conservative Shas party. 

The rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce has been a major point of conflict in Israel. While the country acknowledges the validity of marriages performed outside its borders, Israeli Jews who want to vary from the rabbinate’s standards, whether same-sex or interfaith couples or simply in a ceremony performed by anyone other than an Orthodox rabbi, are forced to travel abroad to do so. 

There has been growing discontent with the rabbinate, which is controlled by the Haredi minority, due to its outsized power in Israel. Its political parties often serve as kingmakers in Knesset elections, while Haredi men in full-time yeshiva study are exempt from the national military service. Haredim are a group that has bloomed in recent years to 13% of the population.

Israel’s Jews largely see Judaism in Orthodox terms, but fall on a spectrum of how much they engage with that. 

On one end are the fully secular or “Hiloni” Israelis who engage little with traditional Jewish practice. On the other are the “ultra-Orthodox” or Haredim, whose lives revolve around the strict observance of Jewish law and who hold the study of Torah to be the highest pursuit, eschewing both gainful employment and national service. Many Haredim live in isolated communities, speak Yiddish rather than Hebrew, and reject the state’s claims to a Jewish character. 

In between is a large range who are known simply as traditional, meaning those who may not be fully observent, but when they do observe, do so in a traditional way. 

Another group in the middle are the Religious Zionists. While they live strictly observant lives, they avoid neither the workforce nor the army but view the building of the state of Israel as part of their religious duty. 

The movement was deeply influenced by disciples of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the years before Israel became a state.

In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the elections for chief rabbi are receiving more scrutiny than in past years, with many advocating that religious leaders hew more to the views of at least most Orthodox Israelis, who do not see a conflict between their religious identity and their responsibilities to national service as Israeli citizens. 

The fight over the exemptions led Israel to an unprecedented period of political instability, with five elections in just four years before Oct. 7, and nearly caused the current government to collapse in March when the Supreme Court ruled that yeshivas would lose their state funding if their students did not submit themselves to the draft. 

FILE - Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys block a road during a protest against the country's military draft in Jerusalem, on Feb. 26, 2024. Israel's High Court ruling Thursday, March 28, to curtail subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men has thrown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political future into grave jeopardy. Netanyahu now has until Monday to present the court with a plan to dismantle what the justices called a system that privileges the ultra-Orthodox at the expense of the country's majority. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys block a road during a protest against the country’s military draft in Jerusalem, on Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

This growing discontent has also fueled frustration with the fact that a large portion of seats in the rabbinical assembly are either internal appointments or reserved for unelected local leaders.

“Oct. 7 let the genie out of the bottle to an extent, in making clear to Religious Zionists that the Haredi position is not sustainable for the Zionist enterprise,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for transparency and inclusion in Israel’s religious institutions. “The disappointment with the chief rabbinate, with the rabbinate elections, are a symptom of that.”

The rabbinate’s popularity has not been helped by the nepotism that is rife in the institution. Both current chief rabbis, the Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, are sons of previous chief rabbis. The leading candidates for both of the spots in next month’s elections happen to be Lau’s and Yosef’s own brothers. Another major contender for the Sephardic chief rabbi is Rabbi Yehuda Deri, brother of Aryeh Deri, the leader of Malchieli’s Shas party. 

In addition to voting themselves, the chief rabbis personally appoint nearly 10% of the assembly that picks their successor. 

“The issues of nepotism have to be taken off the table,” Farber said. “In every normal democratic country that is considered beyond the pale.

“I think people would like to see this whole process depoliticized,” he added. “Instead of being a committee of insiders, it should be more representative of the communities themselves and the people who use its services.”

Farber said that non-Haredi Orthodox Jews believe that the rabbinate, a holdover from the Ottoman Empire, needs to be entirely revamped for the modern state. 

“In Israel, we haven’t had the luxury to write the full menu of what a Jewish and democratic state looks like,” he said. “Many people, myself included, in the Religious Zionist community believe there is a role for the state to play in the religious lives of its constituents, or citizens.”

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