Woman Wins Right to Sit on Council; Israel’s Orthodox Are in Turmoil

Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment is in turmoil over a Supreme Court ruling Thursday that a woman may sit on a local religious council.

The case involves Lea Shakdiel, who was elected last year to the religious council in the Negev town of Yeroham but was not seated because of objections by Orthodox members.

Israel’s two chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira (Ashkenazi) and Mordechai Eliahu (Sephardi), issued a joint statement right after the high court’s decision, warning that scholars and rabbis might refuse to sit on religious councils all over the country if women were allowed to do so.

The chief rabbis observed that it was “customary for reasons of modesty, that men and women not sit together on religious bodies.”

Each city and township in Israel has its religious council, composed of nominees of the local authorities. Their function is to maintain local religious facilities, but the service they perform is administrative, not theological. Until now they have been a male, mainly Orthodox, preserve.

The Supreme Court ordered the mayor of Yeroham, Amir Peretz, to endorse Shakdiel’s nomination within 30 days. The head of the council, Moshe Peretz — not related to the mayor — said he would rather resign than sit with Shakdiel and claimed the other council members felt the same.

The latest confrontation between the religious establishment and the high court, a secular institution, has its irony. Shakdiel, a school teacher who brought the test case to court, is an observant Jew. Justice Menahem Elon, who wrote the decision, is an Orthodox Jew and Talmudic scholar.

The judges expressed “regret” that Mrs. Shakdiel’s problem was not resolved by the religious authorities. In the opinion of certain “wise and good” halachic authorities, a woman is in fact halachically permitted to serve on a religious council together with men, the court said.

Shakdiel thanked the court and Mayor Peretz, who she said stood by her. She said the decision was a victory for religious Zionism and for some rabbis who came out in favor of her election. It was also a triumph for women in Israel, she said.

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