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In rare move, rabbinical court sanctions woman for refusing divorce

Haifa teacher placed on leave by Education Ministry, barred from leaving country, has driver’s license suspended; court threatens to release her name, have her jailed

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative wedding photo. (JTA)
Illustrative wedding photo. (JTA)

An Israeli rabbinical court has sanctioned a Jewish woman in a divorce case, prompting the Education Ministry to suspend her from her job as a teacher in the northern city of Haifa.

The woman, who was not named, has declined to accept the religious bill of divorce, or get, for over eight years, according to a statement from the rabbinical courts on Wednesday.

In Israel, rabbinical tribunals function as family courts for Jewish citizens on personal status issues such as marriage and divorce, and are part of a general judiciary that also includes Islamic Sharia courts.

Under Jewish law, a marriage cannot be dissolved unless the man consents to give a get and the woman accepts it. Rabbinical courts cannot force a man to give his wife a get or the wife to approve it, but in Israel they can impose harsh sanctions, including the rare jail sentence, and public shaming on someone the judges determine is unjustly withholding a divorceThe sanctions are only used in rare cases, and, until now, have been levied only on men.

After a rabbinical judge made 285 separate rulings in the case, most of them related to the woman’s recalcitrance, the Haifa rabbinical court in May 2017 approved a series of sanctions against the woman. Those went into effect in June 2018, the statement said.

The penalties — which were also approved by the Great Rabbinical Court’s president, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef —  include a ban on leaving the country or receiving a passport, a suspension of her driver’s license, restrictions on her bank account, and the termination of her employment.

The court said Wednesday’s decision marked “the first time in the history of the rabbinical courts” that its sanction power was being directed against a female divorce-refuser, but although such moves are indeed rare, it was not unprecedented.

The Haifa rabbinical court also threatened to release the woman’s name, levy fines against her, and even imprison her if she does not approve the divorce in the coming weeks.

The court then pressed the Education Ministry to fire the woman from her position within 14 days. She was subsequently placed on unpaid, open-ended leave until she accepts the divorce, according to the Education Ministry.

“It is the Education Ministry’s obligation to implement the order by the rabbinical court by virtue of its statutory authority,” the ministry was quoted as saying in a letter to the rabbinical court. “This is despite the economic damage that will be caused by preventing her employment until the date set by the ruling of the rabbinical court.”

The rabbinical court set an October 9 deadline for the woman to accept the divorce, after which additional penalties would be considered.

The Haifa rabbinical court has a history of both far-reaching and controversial decisions, including a highly rare annulment in June of the marriage of a woman whose husband refused a divorce for five years and an order in July to detain a Conservative rabbi for performing non-state-sanctioned weddings that garnered international condemnation.

In June, the Knesset passed a law allowing non-Israeli Jewish women to seek a religious divorce in the Israeli rabbinical courts.

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