Student Journalists Women

In Challenge To Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, Women Allowed To Apply For Position Of Parliament Rabbi

By Atara Shields | The Media Line

May 8, 2018

Members of Women of the Wall, hold up the Torah scroll during a morning prayer marking the first day of the Jewish month of Elul, on August 23, 2017 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City (Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, most experts agree that it is highly unlikely a female would be chosen given the virtual monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox on all things religious

Women for the first time will be permitted to apply to become the Israeli parliament’s official rabbi, in a move hailed as a step towards gender equality in the Jewish state.

“To make changes, you need ratzon (will) and the right timing,” said Avivit Ravia, an Orthodox woman and head kosher supervisor of Hashgacha Pratit, an organization authorized by the state to accredit institutions that abide by Jewish dietary laws independently from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which holds a virtual monopoly over all things religious in the country.

The parliament originally sought applicants ordained by the Chief Rabbinate to replace the current rabbi who is retiring after holding the position for nearly three decades. This necessarily excluded women, as the Rabbinate neither recognizes nor allows female rabbis, although there is a general consensus that Jewish law does not prohibit women from becoming kosher supervisors.

Protesting on the grounds of gender discrimination, the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), the advocacy branch of the Jewish Reform movement in Israel, successfully lobbied parliament’s general director to modify the tender. As a result, the new application form requires that a candidate hold a bachelor’s degree and be certified by the Rabbinate as a kosher supervisor, as opposed to specifically requiring rabbinic credentials (somewhat of a paradox given that the position is titled “rabbi”).

“This is a beautiful thing,” contended Ravia, one of the first women in Israel to become a kosher supervisor, adding that she would herself apply if she held a university degree.

Nevertheless, many believe that it is improbable that a woman be selected for the position.

“I don’t see it happening politically or procedurally,” Dr. Shuki Friedman, Director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line. “They [the ultra-Orthodox members of parliament] won’t allow it. They won’t accept it.”

Women have been permitted to take the test to become kosher supervisors since 2013, after a case was brought by Emunah, an Orthodox women’s advocacy group, to Israel’s High Court of Justice. According to Ravia, of the 16 women who passed the first certification test—which, incidentally, is given by the Rabbinate—only a few work in the field, as the Rabbinate does not employ females in this capacity, thereby greatly limiting their employment opportunities.

Ravia explained to The Media Line that while the Rabbinate is now legally required to allow women to be kosher supervisors, during the high court hearing it argued against such a development on the grounds that, “tomorrow they’ll want to be rabbis and it will never stop.”

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is one of the founders of Tzohar, which provides Orthodox religious services to those who prefer not to go to the Rabbinate, including preparing women to take the Rabbinate’s kosher certification test. Although he supports the right of females to become supervisors, Cherlow holds that it would be wrong for the Israeli parliament to appoint a woman rabbi.

“Everyone can be a [kosher supervisor], especially a woman, sometimes they are even better,” Cherlow told The Media Line. “But the authority of the rabbi of the Knesset [Israeli parliament] is much more than to [be a kosher] supervis[or].”

Although the most well-known job of parliament’s rabbi is to ensure that restaurants in the building are abiding by Jewish dietary laws, the position also requires oversight of synagogues and religious services, as well as the installation of hundreds of mezuzahs (Jewish religious objects that are placed on every doorpost) and the sale of leavened foods before the Passover holiday.

According to Cherlow, the parliament’s rabbi may also be asked to fulfill such obligations as ensuring that proposed legislation does not violate Jewish law.

“Do you want the rabbi [of the Knesset] to be an icon, or do you want them to function with the confidence of all the members?,” Cherlow asked, seemingly rhetorically, adding that changes to the historical role that women play in the religious sphere should not be “forced through all kinds of decisions made by bodies outside of the halachic [Jewish law] process.

“I’m not saying it would be a disaster,” he qualified, “rather I see it as the wrong thing to do.”

Although skeptical about the likelihood of a woman being selected as the parliament’s rabbi, Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute nevertheless believes that the move to allow female applicants is important because of the symbolism. “This time no woman will be selected,” he asserted to The Media Line, “but in different circumstances, this precedent will have an effect. It is part of the slow and long process of change [for] women in [Judaism].”

The ability for women to apply for the job of parliament rabbi is the latest progression over the past decades, which includes gaining the right to act as kosher supervisors as well as to become advocates (essentially a lawyer without the credential) in religious courts. As of 2017, women also have been eligible for election to the highest administrative position in rabbinical courts, although they cannot become judges.

“Changes happen from the bottom-up. I listen to people and they want to take control and decide for themselves,” Ravia concluded. “They want Judaism to be given back to the people.”

(Atara Shields is a student intern with The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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