In 1953, as a part of the “Status quo agreement” which was meant to create a stable co-existence between religious and secular elements in Israeli society, the Personal Status Law was passed. Under this law, all issues of personal status were passed over to the exclusive control of the Orthodox religious establishment. This has created enormous tensions within Israel, since all sorts of different groups feel marginalised and unrepresented in issues of personal status. Many groups, such as Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, have suffered what they perceive as almost wholesale discrimination and humiliation at the hands of representatives of the Orthodox establishment.

Another group that has been badly affected are women on many different levels. To mention just a couple of the central issues, the problem of divorce has affected adversely the lives of many Israeli women. Women who have tried to get a divorce against the will of their husbands have found themselves chained to the husbands by the inability of the Rabbinate to force husbands to agree to a divorce. While Rabbinic Courts have the legal wherewithal (imprisonment and economic sanctions) to force recalcitrant husbands to divorce their wives, these are rarely employed. It is true that wives cannot be forced to accept divorce against their will either, but the difference is that Rabbinic courts in Israel have consistently allowed men to take a second wife in certain cases of the wife refusing divorce, whereas no such possibility is open to the woman. A Halachically married woman who disregards these Halachic limitations and lives with another man either as a “common law” wife or as a result of a civil marriage abroad will be penalised in many ways, including the stigmatisation of her children from the second relationship as mamzerim (bastards). These agunot (chained women) are likely to be trapped for life without the option of civil divorce. In addition, Rabbinical law courts will usually side with a man and push women to make peace and return to their husbands, even in cases of terrible suffering on the part of the wife. There is an initiative to create pre-nuptial agreements to avoid subsequent problems of Agunot (chained women), but this is by no means commonly accepted at present.

In addition to the Rabbinic control of personal status issues, Rabbinic society over the years has increased its claim over areas of society that once were left to other authorities. Ultra-Orthodox circles have become more militant and have used political power to ensure their control. Issue after issue is brought to the High Court of Israel concerning the rights of different Jews in Israel to live their lives as they wish and many of the issues have concerned women.

For example, a recent decision by the High Court sided with Rabbinic opinion over the traditions and religious rules to be observed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Women, including Orthodox women, who have for twelve years struggled for the right to conduct a Rosh Chodesh minyan (prayer quorum including the reading of the Torah convened on the first of each new month, a traditionally special time for women) at the Wall, were turned down. The court sided with the Orthodox opinion that, at the Wall, only Orthodox religious customs should be accepted, which does not allow for the public reading of Torah by women, especially not in prayer shawls, and that public order would be threatened if such a thing were to happen. Meanwhile, the Knesset passed a law which would make wearing of tallit and kippah by women in a prayer context at the Wall, a crime punishable by seven years imprisonment. All in all, women have not done well with a narrow-minded exclusively male conservative Rabbinic establishment in Israel.



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0