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Non-orthodox Rabbis Go to Court Seeking Seats on Religious Council

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The High Court of Justice has ruled that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert must explain why he has failed to submit a list of candidates for the city’s religious council — a list that could include Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Last week’s ruling, the latest development in the continuing battle over religious pluralism in Israel, answered a petition filed on behalf of two rabbis who were chosen by the left-wing Meretz Party to serve on Jerusalem’s religious council. One is Reform, the other is Conservative.

Local religious councils are governmental bodies in charge of dispensing basic religious services to all Jewish citizens, including services related to marriage, kashrut and burial.

The petitioners believe that Olmert has put off preparing the list because of the stiff opposition by Haredi, or fervently Orthodox, City Council members to members of non-Orthodox streams serving on the religious council.

The High Court decided earlier this year that candidates could not be barred from serving on religious councils because they are not Orthodox.

“We have the feeling Olmert is trying to delay because he doesn’t know how to deal with the problem of the Haredi factors in the City Council who find it impossible to vote for Conservative and Reform rabbis,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the Conservative candidate of Meretz.

“But the ruling of the Supreme Court is very clear, and Olmert must abide by it,” Bandel said. “What is at stake is the rule of law in Israel.”

For his part, Olmert is negotiating with the Religious Affairs Ministry about the list of candidates and will bring it before the City Council when the negotiations are complete, a mayoral spokeswoman said this week.

The Religious Affairs Ministry is entitled to name a certain number of members to the local religious councils and ultimately must approve the full membership.

CIVIL LAW FAVORS PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION

While religious councils have historically been run according to strict Orthodox interpretation of halachah, or Jewish law, civil law actually entitles the parties serving in local City Councils to be proportionately represented on the religious councils by the candidates they select.

According to this formula, the Meretz Party, which has four seats on Jerusalem’s City Council, may appoint two members to the religious council.

A new religious council is supposed to be appointed within six months after every municipal election.

But Jerusalem’s current religious council was appointed 10 years ago, when Meretz was not represented in the City Council.

Meretz tried to have its non-Orthodox candidates appointed five years ago, but they were repeatedly rejected.

That prompted the legal challenge which resulted in the High Court ruling earlier this year barring the exclusion of non-Orthodox members.

That ruling was greeted by Israel’s civil rights association as groundbreaking for ending what it termed the “Orthodox monopoly” on religious councils and recognizing the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox.

Leaders of the Orthodox establishment, however, were outraged, warning it posed a dangerous threat to Jewish law.

Meanwhile, advocates for the Reform and Conservative movements also planned to file a High Court petition this week claiming contempt of court by the Haifa City Council for rejecting their candidates for the Haifa religious council.

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