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In precedent, rabbinic court says divorce refuser’s family can’t be buried in Israel

Group backing woman who’s been ‘chained’ for nearly 20 years hails move as a gesture showing Israel stands with her, but others see it as failing to address root issue

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Lonna Ralbag, in white, with her attorneys at Israel's Supreme Court for her hearing against her recalcitrant husband in July 2022. (Yad La'Isha)
Lonna Ralbag, in white, with her attorneys at Israel's Supreme Court for her hearing against her recalcitrant husband in July 2022. (Yad La'Isha)

The Chief Rabbinate has ruled that the still-alive father of an American man who has refused to grant his wife a ritual divorce for nearly two decades will not be able to be buried in Israel, in an effort to pressure the husband into freeing his “chained” wife.

The Orthodox group Yad La’Isha, which wrote an amicus brief in support of the woman, hailed last week’s rabbinic ruling as precedent-setting and as a symbolic gesture showing that Israel was on her side.

“This shows that the State of Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, will do everything with every tool at its disposal, even unconventional ones, to help chained women,” Moriya Dayan, an attorney for Yad La’Isha, told The Times of Israel.

For 19 years, the woman, Lonna Ralbag, a US citizen who lives in Monsey, New York, has been considered an agunah — literally, a chained woman — whose husband, Meir Kin, refuses to issue her a religious divorce, meaning she is still technically considered married according to Jewish law. Among other things, this means she cannot remarry in the Jewish faith and that any children she had with another man would be considered illegitimate.

Despite refusing to issue a religious divorce, Kin did file for a civil divorce from Ralbag in California. In 2014, he remarried despite still being religiously married to Ralbag, after getting questionable and possibly fraudulent approval to do so from an American rabbinic court, or beit din — albeit one that is not considered legitimate by the vast majority of Jewish authorities, both in America and in Israel. This has led some religious authorities to deem Kin a bigamist.

Rabbinic authorities in the United States have attempted to pressure Kin into granting Ralbag a ritual divorce, known in Hebrew as a get, by excommunicating him, preventing him from being counted in a prayer quorum and otherwise taking part in religious life.

Another such pressure measure, which is exceedingly rare and used only in extreme cases, is to bar the family of a recalcitrant husband from receiving a Jewish burial. The Rabbinical Council of California utilized the measure against Kin in 2010 — nearly a decade after he was first ordered to give Ralbag a divorce — preventing his mother from receiving a Jewish burial in the United States when she died in 2019.

Instead, the Kin family brought his mother’s body to Israel to have her interred here. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who was made aware of the case, attempted to block the funeral in Israel, leading to a legal dispute. However, as the remains were already in the country awaiting burial and after Kin’s family made certain pledges to advance the divorce, Lau ultimately relented and the funeral went ahead as planned.

Yisrael Meir Kin says he did not agree to grant his wife a religious bill of divorce after the rabbinate delayed his mother’s funeral in order to pressure him into complying. (YouTube video screengrab)

Dayan, the attorney, noted that Kin’s mother and the rest of his family were not innocent bystanders in the case but have stood by him in his battles against Ralbag, despite the writ of excommunication against him.

“The family has taken part in all of this. They are also supposed to be part of the herem,” Dayan said, using the Hebrew term for excommunication.

Kin has been unapologetic in his fight against his quasi-ex-wife, setting up a regularly updated YouTube page where he rails against her and the rabbinic authorities who have ruled against him.

Kin maintains that he has offered to give a get to Ralbag, though this was done through the same highly dubious rabbinic council that permitted him to remarry, meaning such a divorce would likely not be recognized by any other religious authority.

Kin has also reportedly demanded Ralbag pay him $500,000 and award him full custody of their son. There have also been allegations that members of the questionable rabbinic council insinuated that Ralbag would only receive the divorce if she performed sexual favors for them.

‘Israel won’t be a safe haven’

The issue has emerged again, however, as Kin’s 89-year-old father is reportedly in poor health and he too seeks to be buried in Israel.

According to Dayan, in order to prevent another situation in which the legal battle only begins when there is already a body awaiting burial, Ralbag’s attorneys preemptively sought an Israeli ruling on the matter.

“We did some legal research and determined that in fact a burial can be prevented in order to obtain a get, both as a matter of Jewish and Israeli law,” one of the attorneys, Daniel Schwartz, said. “We hope that these proceedings will lead finally to the granting of a get.”

They took the case to Israel’s rabbinate, which sent it to its rabbinic court for adjudication. The rabbinic court ruled in favor of Ralbag’s attorneys’ burial refusal claim and sent the case back to the rabbinate. But the rabbinate said it didn’t have the authority to deal with the issue, forcing Ralbag’s attorneys to appeal to the High Court of Justice.

The High Court of Justice heard the arguments this summer and decided that the matter should be resolved by the Chief Rabbinate and sent the case back to the rabbinate’s rabbinic council for resolution.

Last week, the council upheld Lau’s recommendation, barring Kin’s family members from being buried in Israel. However, it added the condition that another rabbinic council must also sign off on the decision when it is relevant.

“The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has sent a very clear message today that the Jewish state will not be used as a safe haven by these evil men who wish to manipulate Jewish law and our government institutions in the most cynical manner in ways that enable them to continue to abuse their wives rather than allow them to go free,” said another of Ralbag’s attorneys, Avraham Ben Tzvi.

I very much hope and pray that this decision will help set me free after nearly two decades

In a statement, Ralbag thanked the Chief Rabbinate and said she hoped that the ruling would compel Kin to give her a get.

“I am deeply thankful to the Chief Rabbinate for this miraculous decision, which proves that I am not alone and that the people of Israel are with me. I very much hope and pray that this decision will help set me free after nearly two decades, even if the only motivation behind these actions are his desire to properly respect his parents and family and to spare them from the potential consequences of this decision. I also hope that this decision will help other women trapped in these situations,” she said.

The precedent, however, is likely a relatively narrow one as it currently applies to non-Israeli residents. Israeli courts have ruled in the past that the measure of refusing burial of the husband cannot be used to pressure him to give a get, making it unclear if it could be applied here in the future.

“Women in these positions need to know that there are halachic options to force the hand of these men, and this decision proves that there are brave and compassionate people who are willing to take the drastic, yet necessary, steps to show that these women will not be forgotten,” said Pnina Omer, director of Yad La’isha.

Not all advocates for chained women fully supported the ruling. The somewhat more radical Center for Women’s Justice noted that the decision did not address the underlying structures that allow women to be chained by recalcitrant husbands.

“We hope Lonna receives the freedom that she deserves and can put this painful saga behind her soon. CWJ believes we need a systemic, comprehensive solution for agunot that eliminates a woman’s dependence on her husband to leave a marriage,” the group said in a statement.

“Sanctions like these rely upon and reinforce — rather than challenge — the status quo in which a man controls his wife’s freedom. Until we address the root of the problem, women will not be free.”

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