Mixed-gender panels of judges in the Rabbinical Courts

9 March 2021

This article, by Orit Lahav, the CEO of Mavoi Satum, was published in Globes magazine.
Here is a translation (from Hebrew):


In January, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, Justice Esther Hayut, approved a proposal presented by the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Examination of the Treatment of Victims of Sexual Abuse during Criminal Proceedings. According to Hayut’s decision, all court cases regarding sexual abuse must be adjudicated by mixed-gender panels of judges.

The reasoning behind this decision is to prevent situations in which all-male panels will oversee these cases. As the members of the committee explained it, “the logic of this proposal is the difficulty of victims of sexual assault to recount the events before a panel that is not mixed-gender. The objective is to ease the difficulty, even minimally, in the victim’s experience, as they are required to recount anew what they underwent.”

The committee’s proposal, which regarded only criminal proceedings, did not relate to the rabbinical courts, despite the fact that many divorce cases which are held by the rabbinical courts also involve violence and sexual offences. The rabbinical judge panels are not mixed-gender, and the lack of female perspectives is apparent. While all the public positions in Israel are available to both men and women, the positions of rabbinical judges are reserved solely for men.

50% of the proceedings in the rabbinical courts concern women, and yet the panels are comprised only of male rabbinic judges.

Some of the women who go before the rabbinical court do so in order to divorce a man who abused them and was violent towards them and their children. During the court proceedings, they are required to discuss all the horrors they experienced, including specific and intimate details about their relations, in order to earn the right to divorce, and to prove that they deserve a get (a get is a document in Jewish religious law which effectuates a divorce, and is presented by the husband).

This entire process is done in the presence of the abusive husband, as well as three male rabbinical judges.

A male system which judges the women seeking divorce and their decisions, scrutinizes their sex life, interrogates them on how often and in what manner they had sexual relations with their husbands, and questions them about violence they experienced and rape they were subject to. The secular court system recognized the difficulty victims of sexual assault experience when being adjudicated by solely male panels – so why is this still legitimate in the rabbinical courts?

It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a man would accept the authority of a system comprised solely of women and would let a dispute between himself and his wife be adjudicated by that system. However, we have all become accustomed to this absurd reality.

It should be noted that most of the rabbinical judges attempt to be sensitive regarding the woman’s testimony in these areas and to ease her experience, yet as sensitive as they may be, the women will still have a difficult time opening up before them, simply because they are men. Amongst women who are victims of violence and sexual assault, this difficulty is amplified. Women victims of sexual assault have a right to equally mixed-gender panels of rabbinical judges, just as Justice Hayut ruled that any victim of sexual assault has a right to an equally mixed-gender panel of judges.

The rabbinical courts claim that this is a given state, and nothing can be done on the matter – a woman cannot be a rabbinical judge. Even if we accept this position, there is another solution to female representation within the rabbinical courts. In 2017, I presented MK Aliza Lavie with a proposal which would allow to circumvent this halakhic issue – we requested to appoint women who will be present in the rabbinical courts, not as rabbinical judges but as public representatives. This proposal was presented for debate in the Knesset.

This idea is neither absurd nor groundbreaking; this model exists in the Labor Courts of Israel, where every sitting is attended by the judges along with two public representatives – an Employee Representative and an Employer Representative. These representatives do not have legal training, but they do not need it in their capacity as public representatives. A similar model in the rabbinical courts would allow women to be present in the proceedings and participate in them, while circumventing the religious controversy surrounding female rabbinical judges.

Following Justice Hayut’s ruling, this proposal becomes even more fundamental. Women have a right to feel they belong in the rabbinical courts. They have a right to a system that adjudicates them as equals, that knows how to approach victims of violence and sexual assault with the utmost sensitivity, and that recognizes their difficulties and hardships and acts to alleviate this difficulty. Women have a right to a system that does not create additional trauma in this proceeding.

Our objective in Mavoi Satum is to entirely eradicate the issue of agunot and women who are denied a get. It is unreasonable that in Israel 2021, a woman is under complete control by her husband, and there is no justification for this to be allowed and even supported by law. The halakha has found solutions for complex issues, and halakhic solutions for agunot exist and are even used outside of the rabbinate.

It will not be long before the rabbinic courts understand that they must find a holistic solution to this issue, lest they lose 50% of their audience. However, until this occurs, at the very least they must allow women to take a part in the system.

Appointing female public representatives may not solve the issue of agunot, but this solution will alleviate some of the difficulty experienced by the women forced to go before the rabbinic courts on their long journey towards divorce.

 

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