'Another step toward a halacha-based state'

Bill seeks to strengthen rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over child support

Opposition lawmakers say draft amendment compromises women’s position and is part of a slide toward theocracy

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Shas MK Michael Malchieli reacts during a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Shas MK Michael Malchieli reacts during a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli has submitted a new bill that aims to give rabbinical courts discretion over child support, overriding a 2019 Supreme Court ruling.

Opposition lawmakers slammed the bill (Hebrew link) as another step toward theocracy and an attempt to compromise women’s rights, which they said would be jeopardized in the rabbinical court because halacha, Jewish law, favors men. But Malkieli’s office in a statement insisted that the bill merely seeks to clarify the language of the existing law on the matter.

The bill, submitted this week, proposes an amendment to the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law of 1953. The law as it stands today states that rabbinical courts have exclusive jurisdiction on “any matter involving the divorce procedure, including alimony for the wife and child support.”

The various clauses of the law in its current form regulate the existing judicial reality in Israel in which religious courts, which are part of the judiciary and enjoy extensive powers, share the responsibility for certain civil matters with secular family courts, including marriage and divorce. Jews applying for divorce may choose to initiate the process either with a family court or through a rabbinical court.

Whereas the law gives rabbinical courts jurisdiction on child support, the Supreme Court in 2019 scaled back that jurisdiction drastically, limiting it to cases where a spouse is seeking reimbursement on child support expenses that had already been incurred. The Supreme Court ruling was an acknowledgment of noncodified legal practice dating back to the 1970s. The rabbinical court establishment has repudiated the Supreme Court ruling, issuing a verdict reaffirming that its courts do have jurisdiction over child support issues in their entirety.

The proposed amendment is an addition to the existing language, laying out the rabbinical court’s jurisdiction as extending to all aspects of such issues.

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court seen on August 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

Critics of the rabbinical court system say that it should not be involved in child support, lest they be used as leverage against women. That is because, in halacha, both spouses must agree to a divorce. The court may punish recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant a divorce, or wives who refuse to accept one, and even jail them, but it can only permit a husband to remarry in the event that the wife is recalcitrant. Halacha nearly always binds the woman to the marriage in the event that the man is recalcitrant.

Some men do attempt to use their ability to refuse to grant a divorce as leverage against their spouses, to get the women to walk away from child support, or shared property in exchange for a get, Hebrew for the bill of divorce. Among other reasons, because of this potential for manipulation, many regard the rabbinical court system as skewed in the man’s favor.

A special rabbinical court meets to determine the marital status of the wives of two Israeli men who died in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane. (Chief Rabbinate of Israel)

The bill is an attempt to buttress the rabbinical court’s position on its jurisdiction vis-à-vis child support. It seeks to add a clause stating that “child support for the couple’s children includes the entirety of the financial needs of the children, past and present, until they are at an age where parents are no longer obliged to finance their accommodation, education, medical expenses, and any other necessary expense, including, but not limited to, reimbursement between spouses of child support expenses.” If passed, the bill would lift the strict limits imposed by the Supreme Court in 2019 on the rabbinical courts’ discretion on child support.

Merav Michaeli, head of the Labor party, wrote on Twitter: “Will the woman who thinks this bill is in her favor please rise.” Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party, which seeks greater separation between religion and state, tweeted: “Another step toward a halacha-based state” in reaction to a Channel 2 report Sunday about the bill.

The draft amendment, and the law it seeks to amend, pertain only to Jews. Muslims have their own religious sharia courts, which already have jurisdiction over child support, according to Dana Haj Yahya, a lawyer with offices in Taibe and Tel Aviv who argues regularly for clients before sharia courts.

Dana Haj Yahya. (Courtesy of Yahya)

Sharia courts may rule on child support and alimony and enjoy a wider jurisdiction than rabbinical ones, extending to matters such as inheritance and even fitness to stand trial, Haj Yahya said. But, she added, “The concerns around a get do not exist in sharia courts.” Those courts decide to nullify marriages on the basis of recommendations of arbiters that sharia courts appoint for couples where one of the spouses filed for divorce with the sharia court, Haj Yahya said. The consent of both spouses is not a requirement for dissolving the marriage.

A spokesperson from the office of Malkieli, the religious affairs minister and member of the Orthodox Sephardic Shas party, told Channel 12 that “the objective of the bill is to clarify the law and revert to its original interpretation.”

Most Popular
read more: