In precedent, rabbis send woman to jail for refusing divorce from her husband

Until now, incarcerations have only been used on recalcitrant husbands, but a rabbinic court ruled that this sanction was the only way to get the wife to accept the ‘get’

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

The Neve Tirza women's prison in Ramle on May 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
The Neve Tirza women's prison in Ramle on May 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Police officers, acting on the orders of a rabbinic court, on Sunday detained and imprisoned an Israeli woman for refusing to accept a divorce from her husband, in the first use of this punishment against a woman.

“It is rare. It is the first time that there’s incarceration. But the rabbinic court reached the decision that there was no other option,” Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, the head of the department in the rabbinical courts that deals with divorce refusal, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

According to Israel’s rabbinic court system, the woman has been refusing to accept a ritual divorce, known in Hebrew as a get, from her husband for four years, after he gained full custody of their two daughters following a prolonged battle in a civil family court.

Maimon said she has refused to appear in court and rejected all offers to reach a settlement, leading to the imprisonment order against her. She is currently sentenced to a year in prison or until she accepts the divorce.

“We hope that she’ll say she will accept the get today,” Maimon said.

While men are sometimes imprisoned in Israel for refusing to grant their wives a divorce, this was the first use of imprisonment against a recalcitrant wife in Israel’s history.

Women have been imprisoned by rabbinic courts for other infractions relating to divorce proceedings, including the woman in this case who served a day in jail for refusing to appear before the court, but this was the first case of a woman being incarcerated specifically for refusing a court directive to accept a divorce.

This is due to the significantly different repercussions of a man refusing to grant his wife a divorce from those when a woman refuses to accept one, which make sanctions against women less common.

For instance, men whose wives refuse to accept a divorce can and have been given special permission to remarry in an uncommon but extant process known in Hebrew as heter me’ah rabanim, in which 100 rabbis all agree to the move.

Such was the case last year, when famed ultra-Orthodox singer Shuly Rand was given special permission to remarry without having divorced his first wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand. Women cannot be granted such a dispensation under any circumstances and are instead “chained” to their recalcitrant husbands.

In addition, if a “chained” woman, or agunah, has a child with a different man, that child will be deemed a mamzer, or illegitimate, and will be effectively barred from marriage in Israel as will any of their offspring. The same is not true of a man who has a child out of wedlock.

Not a lot of women want to marry a man who’s still married

While Maimon acknowledged that those differences do exist, he said that they were not applicable in this case as the husband testified that he would not be able to remarry even if he had rabbinic dispensation to do so.

“Not a lot of women want to marry a man who’s still married,” Maimon said.

The man and the woman, whose names have not been released for privacy reasons, married in 2000 and had two daughters, who are today 13 and 16 years old. The couple started experiencing “relationship troubles” shortly after the first daughter was born. The couple began the process of separating first through civil family courts, which awarded the father full custody after the woman refused to appear at any of the hearings.

In 2018, the husband filed for divorce with Israel’s rabbinic courts. In Israel, which does not have civil divorce, all Jewish couples must go through the rabbinic court system for these proceedings, regardless of their religious affiliations or lack thereof.

Then too the woman initially refused to attend the hearings at the Petah Tikva Rabbinic Court outside Tel Aviv, but she was forced to after the rabbinic courts ordered the police to bring her in, according to a statement from the rabbinic courts.

“In the subsequent hearings, the woman… insisted that she was not willing to accept a get and that she wanted to go through a reconciliation process with her husband,” the courts said.

Over the course of the past four years, the Petah Tikva Rabbinic Court has imposed a number of sanctions against the woman in order to pressure her into accepting the divorce: taking away her driver’s license, freezing her bank accounts and more.

The court believed that there was no other option but imprisonment

In 2019, after a year of hearings, the court ordered the woman to meet with a psychologist who “determined that she refused to accept reality and release her husband,” the courts said.

Maimon said the court also worked with a social worker and “even got her workplace to try to convince her to accept the divorce,” but she has continued to refuse it.

“Due to these circumstances, the court believed that there was no other option but imprisonment,” Maimon said.

The court required approval from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who serves as president of the Rabbinic High Court, which it received “after a long discussion and repeated attempts by rabbinic judges to convince the woman to act reasonably but she refused all of their offers,” according to the court statement.

On Sunday morning, a private investigator working on behalf of the courts spotted the woman on the street near her house. When she noticed him, she ran home and locked herself inside.

“The Israel Police who were called to enforce the rabbinic court decision knocked on the door but the woman refused to answer. Ultimately, they were forced to break in,” the courts said.

According to Maimon, a representative of the court again tried to convince the woman to accept the divorce, but she refused and was taken into police custody.

Attorney Moriya Dayan, who works for the Yad La’Isha organization which advocates and provides legal assistance for “chained” women, told The Times of Israel that she understood the rationale behind the court order, though she sees Israel’s policies regarding marriage and divorce as causing this situation.

“The court did the right thing if it believed that at the end of the day this is the move that will lead to the desired outcome. But all of this debate comes from a situation that is distorted, where people can ‘play’ with the lives of their former partners,” Dayan said.

“I wish there were a way to handle this differently in the Israeli legal system. But that is currently not possible, so these are the tools at our disposal and we have to use them,” she said.

Israeli religious rights activists have for years argued for an overhaul of Israel’s marriage and divorce system, the latter of which is totally controlled by rabbinic courts, with some calling for reforms of the current rabbinic system while others advocate a complete overhaul of the system in favor of a secular, civil model.

The head of one group calling for a full overhaul, the Center for Women’s Justice, decried the woman’s imprisonment as a bad way to solve a bad problem — namely, the inability of Israelis to divorce freely.

“We have to stop violating human rights as a way to ‘remedy’ our lack of human rights,” Susan Weiss, executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, told The Times of Israel.

A spokesperson for CWJ also alleged that the rabbinic court’s decision to imprison the woman stemmed from a desire to downplay the suffering of “chained women.”

“I suspect that part of the rabbinic court’s motivation for releasing such a story is to make the point that, ‘See, women can be evil too’ and try to both-sides an issue that disproportionally harms women. This aims to diminish the problem and discredit those pressing for solutions to the agunah problem, since it’s ‘equally bad’ on both sides,” Rachel Stomel said.

“But when we talk about get refusal and advocate for equality in marriage and divorce, equality does not mean men and women suffering equally. It means everyone having the legal right to leave a marriage.”

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