Put Women in the Rabbinate, or Abolish It.

Don’t be fooled by tales of divine ordination. Religious jurisdiction over family life is all well-coordinated male conspiracy which should not be tolerated.

How can the Orthodox Rabbinate dominate marriage for Jews for 64 years and embitter the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who don’t meet religious criteria?

Almost everyone knows a couple, a man and woman, Israelis, Jews, who were required to prove their religious status to marry in Israel. Every Jew born abroad must document their Jewish status, and practically any Jew could be required to corroborate their Judaism before marriage. Those whose Jewish status could be questioned include not only immigrants or children of immigrants, but couples registering for a second marriage, religiously taboo unions such as a Cohen and a divorcee, pregnant women, or anyone, at the Rabbis discretion.

Interrogation to clarify Jewish status can be equally invasive for men and women. But for women, investigations of religious status are also expressions of power inequality. The Rabbis who will decide if she if fit to marry a Jew, this Jew, or any Jew, belong to an elite guild of male Orthodox Rabbis, who are selected by another group of men, the electoral body, who are themselves chosen by another group of men, and so on, with no women in the power delegation process. Women are involved only when their religious and family status is examined before being sold under the wedding canopy, to the appropriate male.

The collusion begins in the process of appointment to the Rabbinate. The chain of Rabbinic power delegation, from ordination, to appointment, to selection is entirely male. Until women are made religious authorities, or the religious system of jurisdiction over family life is abolished, male Rabbis will make the most intimate decisions for us, with no public scrutiny or accountability.

This method of religious jurisdiction over family life benefits an elite group of Orthodox Rabbis, at the expense of women and the secular public. The Rabbinate is unparalleled in its lack of transparency or accountability compared to other government institutions. Yet, we keep silent, obey and accept its authority.

Imagine an Israel where women held positions of power and religious judgment. Women’s movements, especially religious women’s organizations, tried to rectify power distortions by influencing the system of rabbinic appointments and getting women into the body that elects the Rabbinate’s judges. These efforts will ultimately fail because the Rabbinate has every interest to perpetuate the traditional exclusion of women from being Rabbis and religious judges.

The Rabbinate exploits Judaism to perpetuate male hegemony. Male hegemony in religion is not reserved for Judaism, of course, and religious courts of other faiths are also run by and for men. In its defense, the Rabbinic establishment in Israel may claim that male leadership is inherent in Judaism and they lack the authority to change gender roles within an ancient faith. They paint themselves as emissaries of a system sanctified by god himself in which men rule and women obey.

The status quo on marriage and divorce will likely continue indefinitely under the control of religious clergy, because the religious system is girded by the government and political establishment, which itself excludes women from positions of power and influence.

Don’t be fooled by tales of divine ordination. Religious jurisdiction over family life is all well-coordinated male conspiracy which should not be tolerated. It is an insult to freedom of religion, to human rights and to Israeli democracy.  Women must preside as religious judges in the Rabbinate for those who choose to accept its authority.  Those who don’t should have civil alternatives that allow any two adults who love another to establish a family in Israel.

The author is the founder and executive director of New Family Organization