Cabinet Minister to Mediate Clash Between Courts and Religious Bodies

Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer has offered to mediate the latest clash between religious and secular law in Israel.

He announced Tuesday he would convene an informal meeting of the country’s top lay jurists and its senior rabbis to work out a modus vivendi when court rulings conflict with halachic interpretations by the Orthodox rabbinate.

Hammer, a leader of the National Religious Party and its only Cabinet minister, warned that if the confrontation is allowed to escalate, there would be an inevitable break between the state and established religion.

Two recent Supreme Court decisions were blasted in a statement issued Monday by the Chief Rabbinate Council, charging interference by the high court in matters that should be the sole preserve of halacha, the religious body of law.

One was the court’s ruling that the government must endorse the election of a woman, Lea Shakdiel, to the religious council in the Negev township of Yeroham. The other case involved the court’s decision that a woman may be nominated to the committee designated to elect a new chief rabbi for Tel Aviv.

The Chief Rabbinate Council is comprised of the two chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira (Ashkenazic) and Mordechai Eliahu (Sephardic) and 10 other of the country’s leading rabbis. It made clear in its statement that it views the Shakdiel decision as the more serious infringement on halachic tradition.

The electoral committee meets once and disbands, whereas the local religious councils have regular weekly or biweekly meetings, Shapira explained.

A MALE, ORTHODOX PRESERVE

The religious councils exist in every Israeli city and town to coordinate local religious matters, but are not themselves religious bodies. Until now, they have been exclusively male and almost exclusively Orthodox preserves, but by tradition rather than specific halachic injunction.

Shapira admits that the presence of a woman on the religious council may not be a technical violation of religious law. His objections are based on the halachic notions of modesty that pervade Orthodox life. The mere presence of a woman in the company of men constitutes immodesty, according to ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

“Torah-wise persons would never agree to sit with women,” Shapira said. As a result, he said, the religious councils would lose their best members and even their reason to exist. He called those who might disagree “ignorant lightweights.”

Political observers believe the two chief rabbis are prepared to back down over the idea of a woman on the Tel Aviv electoral committee, but will not relent in the Shakdiel case. To do so would be seen as a sign of weakness in defense of rabbinical privileges, the observers said.

Shakdiel herself has been shaken by the explosive nature of the issue surrounding her. She is a young Orthodox woman, strictly observant. Questioned by reporters Tuesday, she was circumspect about the sharp utterances of the Chief Rabbinate.

She pointed out, however, that the Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision in her favor, Menachem Elon, is himself devoutly Orthodox and one of the country’s foremost Talmudic scholars.

Shakdiel also noted that in the past, some rabbis have favored the participation of women in bodies such as religious councils that are basically administrative.

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