Seth Farber
Rabbi and Social Activist

Nepotism at work: The committee to appoint rabbinical judges

How can Israelis trust the courts they need for divorce and other legal matters, when they have become a job factory for the committee's relatives?
Illustrative: Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meets with newly appointed Supreme Rabbinical Court judges in Jerusalem, July 13, 2016. (Yaacov Cohen/ Flash90/ File)
Illustrative: Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meets with newly appointed Supreme Rabbinical Court judges in Jerusalem, July 13, 2016. (Yaacov Cohen/ Flash90/ File)

Over the next two weeks, at least 15 new rabbinical court judges will be chosen by the Council for Appointing Judges (Vaadah le-Minui Dayanim). These appointments have broad implications for the approximately 10,000 couples who get divorced each year in Israel’s rabbinical courts and tens of thousands of others who find themselves in the halls of Israel’s religious justice system for issues of inheritance, proving Jewishness, or proving personal status.

It would be unfortunate enough if these appointments were being made by the outgoing chief rabbis on the final days of their serving in office. But what is significantly more problematic and an ethical travesty is that many of the appointments will be family members and close friends of members of the committee — something that may end up being challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court. The judges with the most likelihood of being appointed are sons-in-law, brothers, cousins, and close friends of the families of the chief rabbis and their inner circle. Rather than being a force of justice and Jewish law, the rabbinical courts have become a job factory for relatives.

Both democratic tradition and Jewish tradition look unfavorably at nepotism. Moving forward now with these appointments will clearly be an ugly stain on the Israeli Rabbinate and the future of these judges.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia 85b (tomorrow’s daf yomi) describes how two young scholars who were both sons of great Jewish leaders were given opportunities to rise quickly to positions of leadership in the beit midrash (study hall). Both Rabbi Judah Hanasi (son of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel) and Rabbi Elazar (son of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) impressed the sages with their acumen and ability, and the sages sought to promote them.

According to the Talmud, they literally were “taken off the floor” and given seats of power. But the Talmud recounts that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who was well aware of his son’s abilities, demanded that his son be demoted for fear of the evil eye — which, in other contexts, means that he was afraid that it would look inappropriate for his son to rise to power because of his father’s power. And in fact, Rabbi Judah the Prince was demoted.

How far Jewish history has come! It would be appropriate now for all the fathers and fathers-in-law, all the cousins and brothers-in-law, in fact, all the family members of any of these prospective rabbinical court judges to ask their relatives and friends to excuse themselves from this round of promotion.

This should not be an issue for the Supreme Court; it’s a basic Jewish halachic value.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth Farber, PhD, is Founder and Director of ITIM, an organization committed to making Israel’s religious establishment respectful of and responsive to the diverse Jewish needs of the Jewish people, and a Founder and Director of Giyur K'Halacha, Israel's largest non-governmental conversion court network. He is a recipient of the Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize, and the Israel Ministry of Aliyah & Integration's Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Israeli Society.
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