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Rabbinical ruling helps Jewish Israeli women get divorced

Attempting to pressure a husband who refuses to grant a divorce writ to his wife, the Israel Chief rabbinate ruled that his father would be prevented from being buried in Israel when the time comes.
Orthodox wedding

On Sept. 6, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau banned the burial in Israel of a (still living) man whose son refused to grant his wife a divorce and fled to the United States. The ruling was an effort to pressure the husband into freeing his wife from their marriage.

In Israel, marriages, divorces and most burials are conducted according to one's religion. Jews get married according to Jewish law, Muslims according to Muslim law, Christians according to church regulations, etc. There are no civil marriages or civil divorces. Civil burials exist, but no Jewish Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox family would ever turn to such a solution. 

The issue of civil marriages comes up every so often in election campaigns, but so far, faced with the rejection of ultra-Orthodox parties, no government has passed such a law. Israeli Jews who want to get a civil marriage (or interfaith couples who want to get married) must do so abroad. A poll conducted in August found that the majority of Israelis would like to see the option of civil marriages. Still, it is important to note that the poll was conducted via the internet, and thus probably did not include many ultra-Orthodox people.

Also, while many Israelis call for a civil option to exist, they are still very attached to the traditional Jewish marriage ceremonies. Another poll says that the majority of people who support center and leftwing parties consider instating such an option a major electoral issue (ahead of the Nov. 1 elections).  

For a Jewish woman to get divorced, she needs to receive from her husband a get, which is a Halachic Jewish divorce writ. But Jewish law bans women from re-marrying as long as their husbands do not declare, "You are hereby permitted to all men." In other words, only the husband may formally dissolve a marriage. Over the years, thousands of men have used this stricture, whether out of vindictiveness or reluctance to assume the financial burden involved.

The Sept. 6 precedent-setting ruling points to the Chief Rabbinate’s growing realization that it must expand its arsenal of punitive tools against recalcitrant husbands refusing to set free their wives by granting them a get.

According to the Rabbinate, at least 150 Jewish women in Israel alone currently remain “agunot,” Hebrew for “chained” to their husbands, unable to get on with their lives. The Mavoi Satum organization that advocates for reform of Israel’s marriage and divorce laws puts the numbers far higher.

"Unfortunately, the phenomenon will not disappear," a senior rabbinical court judge told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Although not necessarily because of the courts, but precisely because of the Israeli bureaucracy that does not allow the use of rapid punitive measures."

While the rabbinical court system is aware of the plight of the aggrieved women, and has formulated a series of immediate sanctions making it difficult for husbands to continue with their lives while their wives remain bound to them, the police and civil courts, he claimed, drag their feet in enforcing such sanctions. 

Jewish law, which is binding in Israel, allows rabbinical court judges to impose various sanctions against such husbands, including exclusion from a minyan, the requisite number of 10 male worshipers needed for a prayer session, and from the ritual of blessing a Torah scroll. In some cases, the boycott even bars neighbors and fellow worshipers from greeting such husbands.

The Sept. 6 burial ruling stems from a precedent sanction that bans the Hevra Kadisha Jewish burial society from warning men who continue to resist a divorce that they would not be interred when the time comes.

When these punitive tools did not prove sufficiently effective against stubborn and vindictive husbands, rabbinical courts were handed the power to carry out effective enforcement measures as quickly as possible. For example, once divorce proceedings are instituted, the courts can prevent the husband from fleeing by banning his exit from Israel or freezing his bank accounts.

Men who continue to resist granting their wives a divorce can even be sent to jail. One man spent 19 years in jail (until 2019) over his refusal to grant his wife a get. The problem was eventually resolved when the rabbinical court annulled the marriage.

Nonetheless, hundreds of men have managed to flee over the years to the US or other countries, where local rabbinical courts lack the authority to enforce effective punitive tools against them as they do in Israel.

Annulment, which ended the marriage of the husband who spent 19 years behind bars, has only been relevant in a handful of cases. Under Jewish law, annulment is only possible if a flaw is found in the marriage proceedings themselves. But few rabbinical court judges are sufficiently well versed in this complex procedure to issue such rulings and make them stick.

The Chief Rabbinate has established a special department to deal with recalcitrant husbands, sending “get hunters” to locate them and pressure them to free their wives.

The Rabbinate points to a particularly complex case involving a member of an organized crime gang who fled Israel after serving out his jail term because he heard that a rival group was intending to kill him. The man disappeared, but a rabbinical court source told Al-Monitor, on condition of anonymity, that after several years, the “get hunters” located the man in a remote village in one of the former Soviet republics. The husband, stunned to discover the rabbinical envoys and his wife on his doorstep, initially refused to grant the divorce. He only agreed after the envoys hinted that his place of hiding would be leaked to the gang looking for him, freeing the wife from his chains if he were killed. He immediately acquiesced.

Still, the rabbinate concedes, there are any number of husbands living in Israel, whose whereabouts are known but nonetheless persist in their refusal to grant their wives a divorce. It attributes the problem to a lack of coordination between the religious courts and the civil ones, saying precious time is wasted in enforcing rabbinical measures against the husbands in contempt of its rulings, while the wives pay the price.

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