Sisterhood Blog

The Masculinization of All Things Religious

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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Eleven women’s groups got together last week to challenge gender discrimination that is written into Israeli law. As it stands, the Law for Appointing Judges bans women from applying for the position of Executive Director of the Rabbinical Court. Although such a law would have no doubt have been thrown out long ago from the American legal system, in Israel Version 2010, getting this law revoked is harder, it seems, than bringing the mountain to Moses, so to speak.

Last Wednesday, a group of women’s organizations, including the Israel Women’s Network, the Center for Women’s Justice, Naamat, WIZO, Kolech, ICAR, and several others, appealed to the Supreme Court in a suit against Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman, to repeal the law on the grounds that it violates the basic human rights of women and women’s freedom of employment.

The appeal followed the Rabbinical Court’s job announcement published few days earlier seeking a replacement for the current executive director of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Eli Ben Dehan, who has been in the position for some 20 years.

Two women have already expressed interest in applying for the position: attorney Atara Kingsburg, current director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, and attorney and religious pleader Lily Horowitz.

Kolech legal coordinator attorney Ricky Shapira who is representing the appeal, argues that the repeal of the law would be a direct outcome of the 1987 Supreme Court decision that determined that a woman must be allowed to join municipal religious councils — following which Leah Shakdiel became the first woman to join a religious council in Israel, in her town of Yeruham. Shapira wrote that the current situation “creates in-built discrimination against women. In addition to women being banned from serving as judges in the rabbinic courts, women cannot even serve in an administrative position, because only a person qualified to be judge or the rabbi of a city can be appointed — two positions that women are already excluded from.” In other words, it’s discrimination justified by discrimination. Shapira added that the rabbinical court sees a lot of women passing through its doors, and having a woman in a leading role would send the message that women’s rights are respected in this institution.

It seems to me that if women are excluded from the outset, the director is free of women’s influence. Dehan, during his 20-year tenure, could say and do whatever he wanted regarding women, because ultimately women were not a threat to his position. The message is that women are outsiders with no real power and no real say, so it doesn’t really matter what they want or think. That might be why, for example, on a radio interview last year about the agunah issue, Dehan’s response was that women’s groups are “fabricating” stories of agunot. I kid you not. He said it to me. You can hear it here for yourself.

Moreover, despite the fact that it is actually against the law in Israel to advertise gender-specific positions, the current situation sets a precedent that allows discrimination in “special” circumstances — special, meaning religious. The truth is, gender-specific job advertising is already de facto in the religious world. When Chana Kehat spoke at Limmud Modi’in in June about the status in women in Orthodoxy, she was particularly upset about this point. “The position of Principal of Girls’ Ulpana High School is routinely advertised as being for rabbis only,” she said. Alarmingly, this masculinization of all things religious is not confined to the Orthodox community. In my daughter’s mixed religious-secular school, when a new religious track was opened in the junior high school earlier this year, the position of Religious Track Coordinator was advertised as, “ seeking a graduate of a [boys’] yeshiva high school.” Some parents were remarkably okay with this. One mother said to me, “It’s good because this way everyone knows that this is going to be a religious program.” Another mother, though, who is an exceptional Jewish educator but not Orthodox, was not quite as impressed. She would have been terrific at the job, but wasn’t even allowed to apply.

Whether the State of Israel will continue to allow sexism in the name of religion or instead support women fighting for justice and equal rights is yet to be seen. What is certain is that the identity of Israel as a democratic state of all its citizens is hanging in the balance.


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