Women & the Rabbinical Court
By: Batya Kahana-Dror, Mavoi Satum
The media storm over ‘exclusion of women’ holds our interest primarily through high profile events and the public debates which follow them. Few of us living in an open society can say that manifestations of the ’exclusion of women’ really affect our lives directly or personally.
For many women, however, (statistically one in four) who come into contact with the Rabbinical Courts the situation is very different. For them, whose future often depends on the decision or whim of a particular dayan, the ‘exclusion of women’ is very real and personal. Their voices are routinely silenced by the representatives of religion empowered by the State of Israel to perform marriages and to dissolve them – The Rabbinical Court.
The struggle for Jewish women to be valued as human beings with full rights, to be seen and heard, is taking place most palpably in the heart of the religious establishment, in the institution that has received a mandate from the State of Israel to have free reign over the most personal and intimate areas of people’s lives. From the moment a woman marries in Israel, she ties her fate to the religious establishment and to the Rabbinical Court.
There in the court sit three bearded men wearing black hats and black coats. Who are these men? Do they see the woman who stands before them? What world do they come from and what world does she come from? Does anyone there understand what she is talking about and what she wants? Will her voice even be heard? And if it is, can they really listen? Does a meeting take place at all?
We want to change all this. We want to give that woman back her voice. Her voice resonates for us in everything we do. It makes no difference to us whether she is religious or secular or ultra-orthodox. It is irrelevant whether she was forced to stand before the Rabbinical court or she has come before them believing faithfully that this is a place of justice. She may be aware that they are depriving her of her rights or she may accept their ruling submissively. In all cases, we are there to help her.
The challenge that this woman poses is not just an individual one. The woman who stands before the Rabbinical Court demanding justice in her own case challenges us all. It asks us to examine our attitude to women, to the administration of justice and to the protection of the rights of all citizens in this country. It forces us to think about the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. That is why:
We support women struggling for their freedom from an unwanted marriage by representing them in the Rabbinic and Civil Courts, thereby hoping to build a better society.
We empower women to help themselves, to strengthen themselves, to resist the forces that oppress them and to stand up for their right to freedom.
We promote a ‘different’ kind of Judaism. A Judaism that sees all its members through equal lenses. A Judaism in which justice and equality are the foundations of its court system. A Judaism that will enable us to continue living here in a Jewish state.
We call on young couples to protect themselves, to become partners in the official marriage process by signing prenuptial agreements and empowering private courts to uphold them.
Our political struggle to prevent injustice and discrimination against women being denied a divorce does not stop with proposing legislation. It extends to the battle for the appointment of worthy judges who are essential to bringing about change. We are fighting to include women on the committee that appoints these judges. We know that appropriate religious judges can help rectify the insufferable imbalance in the divorce process.
This is not a fight against the ‘exclusion of women’ in the queue at the health clinics in Betar Illit or on the streets of Bet Shemesh alone. It is a struggle over the heart of the religious establishment. It is a battle for equality and social justice for women in this country and for the image that the State of Israel presents to the world. This is an issue that threatens the delicate fabric of our existence here as a Jewish and democratic state. Our survival as a cohesive society depends on the ability of the State to integrate the values of human rights and equality for women into its character as a Jewish state.