Private panel of rabbis annuls marriage of abused wife who sought divorce

In rare move, rabbis find nuptials were ‘a mistake’ as husband hid his criminal past; Chief Rabbinate says it won’t recognize measure and woman is still considered married

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A private rabbinic court, led by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, center, retroactively invalidates the marriage of a Jewish woman whose husband refused to grant her a divorce, Jerusalem, February 3, 2019. (Rachel Stomel)
A private rabbinic court, led by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, center, retroactively invalidates the marriage of a Jewish woman whose husband refused to grant her a divorce, Jerusalem, February 3, 2019. (Rachel Stomel)

A private rabbinic court in Jerusalem has retroactively invalidated the marriage of woman who was refused a religious divorce by her husband, reasoning that if the wife had known of her husband’s violent criminal past she would not have married him in the first place, the Ynet website reported Monday.

The extremely rare move was made to release the woman from the marriage after her husband refused to grant her a get, or religious divorce.

Following several weeks of deliberations, the three-man panel convened in a Jerusalem synagogue on Sunday where they ruled the marriage was “a mistake.”

The private court, headed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber and convened by the Center for Women’s Justice organization, dissolved the marriage on the grounds that the woman would not have agreed to the nuptials had she known of her husband’s criminal record, which included time in prison for assaulting his first wife.

“This has been such a long process, I didn’t believe that I would reach this point and that it is really happening now,” the woman told one of the judges, according to the report.

Rabbi Daniel Sperber. (Nurit Jacobs Yinon)

In a summary of their ruling the rabbis noted that the woman had suffered sadistic physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, whom they described as “a monster,” and that the chances of him granting a divorce were zero.

In Judaism, women who are not given a get, or Jewish divorce, by their husbands are known as agunot or “chained women,” as they cannot remarry according to Orthodox Jewish law. Any children they have out of wedlock may not marry under Orthodox law.

Sperber, who set up his private court six months ago and has since on two other occasions given rare rulings to release women from marriages, explained to Ynet that throughout Jewish history similar rulings were made to set free women from abusive marriages.

“This whole marriage was a mistake and we found that this marriage is invalid,” he said. The woman thus did not need her husband to grant a divorce.

Sperber said that his ruling did not conflict with the state-approved Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which has a monopoly on marriages and divorces, as he was not granting a divorce but rather invalidating the marriage in the first place.

However, Kobi Alter, the spokesperson from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, told The Times of Israel that the dissolution was not recognized by the rabbinate and that the woman would not be allowed to remarry via state authorities as she is still considered married.

“We can’t have anyone who wants to setting up panels to do whatever they want,” Alter said. “The rabbinate is quite capable of dealing with cases of agunot and has done so many times.”

Illustrative: Hasidic Jewish men celebrating a wedding in Israel, where marriage and divorce is legally under the authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Attorney Nitzan Caspi Shilony, who represented the woman, agreed that her client was still considered legally married but explained that from the point of view of Jewish law, the panel had the power to cancel her marriage and that was what mattered to her. As a religious woman who wants to marry again, she needed to believe that she was free to marry again under Jewish religious law.

“It was important to her to be released, which she is now,” Caspi Shilony told the Times of Israel. “From her point of view it was important to be free.”

Caspi Shilony noted that there are rabbis in Israel who would be willing to conduct a marriage ceremony for the woman, even if it is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, meaning she would not be able to officially register the new marriage.

“She is better off than she was before,” Caspi Shilony said, adding that her client will not appeal to the Chief Rabbinate to obtain an official divorce.

According to the Ynet report the couple married seven years ago in a European country. It was only after they were married that the wife discovered her spouse’s violent past which included 18 months in prison for assaulting his first wife.

The couple separated after three years but the husband refused to grant a divorce. The woman, who is religiously observant, moved to Israel and applied to have the rabbinic courts push through the divorce, which they refused to do.

There have only been a few cases in Israel in which marriages have been retroactively annulled, Ynet reported, usually in cases when the husband was missing or in a medical condition which did not enable him to give his wife a divorce. Sunday’s ruling was apparently the first time it was done under the reasoning that the marriage was “a mistake.”

Last year Sperber’s private court dissolved the marriage of woman who was unable to obtain a divorce from her husband for 23 years, with the man choosing to serve time in prison rather than divorce his spouse.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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