Skip to content

Press Release: CWJ to Supreme Court: Include at Least Four Women on Committee for Appointing Rabbinic Judges

With the aim of correcting an injustice that stifled women’s voices in appointing judges (dayanim) for Israel’s religious courts this year, the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) has petitioned the Supreme Court to rule that the Committee for Appointing  Rabbinic Court Judges must include at least four women.

Because dayanim have sole jurisdiction on matters relating to marriage and divorce, it is essential that women – who are most at risk for being adversely affected by the discriminatory decisions of fundamentalist rabbinic judges –have a meaningful   role in the selection process.

CWJ filed the petition on January 31, 2012, joined by the Israel Women’s Network, Kolech, the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status, Mavoi Satum, the Hiddush Movement for Freedom of Religion in Israel, the Yerushalmim Movement for a Pluralistic Jerusalem and the GRANIT Association.

As set down by Israeli law in 1955, the appointment committee consists of 10 representatives from various governmental, religious and professional entities. Four places are reserved for men only – two for the chief rabbis and two for dayanim.  The law does not mandate places for women.

In November, the Israeli Bar Association selected its representatives, completing the process of assembling the current committee. The resulting committee did not include any women. In response, Emunah, the national religious women’s movement, filed a petition demanding that the committee include women, without relating to a specific number of women. This would make it possible for the Knesset and the Israeli Bar Association to choose just one woman. A Supreme Court deliberation in January raised the possibility of adding an 11th member – a woman – to the committee; another bill under consideration in the Knesset would reserve two places on the committee for women.

CWJ’s petition states that the requirement to reserve four places for men without a similar number for women is a serious affront to justice and equality. “This practice contradicts the State’s commitment, under international law, to eliminating all forms of discrimination against women,” says attorney Susan Weiss, director of CWJ. “It also contradicts the 1951 Equal Rights Law, which mandates adequate representation of women in public bodies.”

In order to balance the inherent inequality of the Committee to Appoint Rabbinic Judges, Weiss continued, it is not enough to settle for one female representative. “Symbolic representation is not enough,” she insists. “There must be at least four women on the committee. This situation is a disgrace to justice in Israel and demands immediate change.”

The Center for Women’s Justice is a legal advocacy organization leading the struggle for dignity and justice for women in Jewish law. CWJ places moral and religious dilemmas relating to women on the public agenda, including agunaget refusal, conversion and mamzer, and promotes comprehensive halachic and legal solutions to these issues.


Women’s difficult choices: The insider/outsider dilemma and the agunah problem

This post, which appeared in The Forward Sisterhood on March 7 International Agunah Day, was written by Elana Sztokman and inspired by many, many fascinating and profound conversations with Susan Weiss

Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.

Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.

Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”

Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.

She refused to be put on display like cattle — and paid for it with her throne, with her status, and according to the midrash, with her life. Esther, on the other hand, played the game. She was silent for the first four chapters of the book, quiet, docile and pretty as the other dominating male in her life, Mordechai, called the shots and gained political standing. When Esther finally acted, it was by using her feminine charm, her sexuality, to woo the king into pleasing her and killing Haman. To save the Jewish people, she played the seductress. She may have stayed alive and kept her throne – but that’s not necessarily a blessing. She remained in her gilded cage, married to the megalomaniacal wife-killer, for the rest of her life. By being the “insider” in the system, she sacrificed her own freedom. Vashti, the quintessential fighter, may have lost her life, but she may have also kept her dignity.

Women face the insider/outsider dilemma all the time. Should we work hard and sacrifice our integrity (and money) to meet social expectations of female beauty in order to reap the significant social rewards of beauty and sexuality, or should we challenge the system, refuse to turn ourselves into seductresses, and force the world to deal with “real women,” as we are? For example.

In Judaism the insider/outsider dilemma is faced in the most harrowing way by agunot, women who cannot get a Jewish divorce because the system relies on male volition. To stay in the Jewish legal system, agunot give up right to live independently, or to give birth to a Jew, or to be free. They can be free at any moment, but that would entail giving up their status within the Jewish legal system.

Read more here.

Press Release: Supreme Court Rules in Damage Claim Appeal in CWJ Get Recalcitrance Case

February 23, 2012

 “Technical issues” cited as reason for turning down a husband’s request to have his appeal heard by the Supreme Court on the issue of damages owed for get refusal.  While the case won’t receive a hearing, Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel offers strong rebuke to recalcitrant husband and a nod to this case’s prior judgments in both family and district courts that awarded and upheld an NIS 700,000 award for his long-suffering wife.

S’s life hasn’t been pretty. At 24, this young Iranian immigrant, having just arrived in Israel, married and hoped for a bright future. But her husband’s intensive physical abuse began two days after the wedding. After three months, pregnant and frightened, S left the marital home.

Despite the severe threat to S and her child, for 11 years, Israeli rabbinic courts refused to mandate a get (religious divorce).

With no relief on the horizon, in 2005, S turned to the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) for help.  CWJ petitioned Tel Aviv family court on her behalf suing her recalcitrant husband for damages to compensate for the many years of anguish and lost opportunity. In 2008, the court ruled in S’s favor, ordering her husband to pay NIS 700,000 in damages.  He appealed the ruling in Tel Aviv District Court, but in early 2011, the family court decision was upheld.  Undeterred, the husband went on to request an appeal in the Supreme Court, where S’s interests continued to be represented by CWJ.

In late February, the Supreme Court handed down its decision – it turned down the husband’s request to hear the case.

Justice Neal Hendel stated that although the issue raised – whether damage claims regarding get refusal can be addressed in a civil, family court framework – is of grave importance, because these issues were not adequately addressed in lower courts, this case cannot be heard in the Supreme Court.

To the petitioner’s claim that the damages were set too high or that S’s behavior could in any way justify the get refusal and de facto “imprisonment,” Judge Hendel declares:

“Based on the facts of this case, the sum awarded is not too high. The wife was 24 when the couple married and they lived together for all of three months until she was forced to flee for her life because of the husband’s violent and abusive behavior. Today, the wife is over 40 and her husband still refuses to grant her a get. I see no reason to intervene in the District Court ruling which stated, ‘[by not granting the get] the appellant deprived his wife of her right to a life of personal fulfillment, deprived her of her right to remarry, and deprived her of her right to have additional children.’  I will allow myself to add that any actions taken by the wife do not in any way justify the petitioner’s resolve to keep his wife chained as an aguna – not from a legal perspective and not from a halachik perspective.”

Attorney Susan Weiss, CWJ founder and Executive Director, added: “Though the  Supreme Court of Israel has not yet given its full stamp of approval of the damage claims brought against recalcitrant husbands, the latest decision confirms that the Court views get recalcitrance as reprehensible and worthy  of compensation. CWJ applauds the decision.”

CWJ Challenges Chief Rabbinate’s Control over Women’s Ritual Immersion

  • Should publicly funded mikvahs (ritual baths) in Israel be open to all women who want to use them?
  • Does the Chief Rabbinate have the right to set terms for mikvah use that effectively invades the privacy of women?
  • Do women in Israel have the right to choose how to live their lives as Jews?

The Center for Women’s Justice raises these questions in a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of two unmarried women who wish to immerse themselves in a mikvah – but are barred from doing so by the Rabbinate’s regulations that mikvahs are for married women only.

Read about it at The Forward

Read here (Ha’Aretz article) about CWJ’s latest steps toward achieving democratic rights and dignity for women in Israel’s religious establishment.

Recalcitrant Wives: Refusing the Ketubah – part 1, by Caryn Noveck

The Missing Picture

You can tell from my parent’s wedding album that they got married in 1975. Between my grandmothers’ floor-length lace and purple gowns, the plethora of tortoiseshells and my father’s, well, bangs, there’s no room for doubt. I used to enjoy looking through the album as a child, the pictorial narrative of the origins of my family slowly coming together. First, a shot of the invitation, set tables, some bridesmaids getting ready, and my beautiful young mother in her gown. Then some pictures of my father, parents and brother, some of my mother, parents and brother, separate families still. Eventually the group comes together, two families becoming one. Later, more relatives appear, allowing me to play the game of picking out cousins as their shrunken child-sized selves, great-grandmothers I never met, and male relatives I never imagined once had a full head of hair. Finally, somewhere in-between all the family portraits and awkward table shots, the moment that made it all count, my father’s father, my mother’s father, the brothers, uncles and several first and second degree male cousins from both sides, all surrounding my father seated at a table, holding a pen and smiling, signing the Ketubah*, the Jewish marriage contract.

Read more…

The Pre-Nup, by Ellyse Borghi

In continuation of my disillusionment, through law school I was taught about halachic prenuptial agreements. I learnt about them both in a course on family law and another course specifically on solutions to the problems of agunot.

 What I learnt was very disappointing.

 Where a regular prenuptial agreement is designed to protect property owned by one of the parties from before the marriage from being divided during a divorce, a halachic pre-nup is created to ensure the delivery or acceptance of a Get.

 There are many ways that these agreements can work. The basic level is simply a civil contract that says that should one of the parties file for divorce and the Get is not given within a year (or another specified period of time) then every day after that, the recalcitrant party owes the other money. A self-imposed financial penalty for Get refusal. These agreements are binding in civil courts. Read more…

The Mikveh Ladies, by Ellyse Borghi

This week I attended a round-table meeting at the Shatil offices with many different womens organisations to discuss issues relating to mikvaot in Israel. I learnt many interesting things at this meeting. For example: that women who work in these mikvaot (balanit – single, balaniot – plural) have no training and get paid minimum wage. They have no days off because mikvaot need to be open every day of the year (except for tisha b’av and yom kippur). Furthermore because they only work at night, even if they work 5 hours every day of the week, they are defined as part time workers and don’t get full pension and healthcare benefits. The majority of the women are sephardi, come from very low socio-economic backgrounds, have low levels of education, have many children and are generally the sole providers for their large families. They provide for their households via this work. Furthermore these women are not unionised and do not have a representative on the council’s religious matters board. Indeed when they sought help from rabbis for their working conditions, they were told to leave the issue alone because their reward will be in the world to come. We were informed by the women making the presentation and who had also conducted this research of how unco-operative the head of the religious affairs committee was and the balaniot as well. She explained how there is unchecked nepotism enabling some women access to these jobs and then to more pay or having shabbatot and chaggim off.

Read more…

Law School 101, by Ellyse Borghi

As a law student I’ve been shocked to discover what is being taught in our academic institutions.

 My expectation from universities is that they would not only teach the law but would also educate their students to better the legal system and to practice their profession with dignity and compassion.

 In reality however, I was taught how to exploit the system even at the expense of people’s families and children.

  Read more…