'They put her life on hold while they investigate'

Rabbinate delays divorce of a woman it helped wed but now says may not be Jewish

High Court of Justice orders rabbinical judges to discontinue their inquiry and nullify the marriage, after delaying since 2021

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

Justice Isaac Amit at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 4, 2024. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)
Justice Isaac Amit at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 4, 2024. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)

The High Court of Justice has ordered rabbinical authorities to finalize the divorce of a woman who was married with the Chief Rabbinate’s approval, but who officials now suspect is not Jewish.

In its ruling from December 26, the High Court of Justice ordered the Rabbinical Court of Ashkelon and the Chief Rabbinate to stop investigating the woman’s Jewishness and promptly dissolve her marriage.

The case of the woman, who asked that her name be withheld citing privacy issues, is part of a growing tendency on the part of rabbinical courts, which in Israel act as family courts and are therefore under the High Court’s authority, to conduct background checks whose scope exceeds the issues brought before them, and which critics say are invasive and inappropriate.

The woman, a 41-year-old mother of two who was born in the former Soviet Union, approached the Ashkelon Rabbinical Court in 2021 along with her husband to work out a consensual divorce. But the court stalled the process, eventually informing her that it was not sure she was Jewish, even though an Orthodox rabbi representing the Rabbinate had married the couple in 2006 in Israel.

“You feel trapped and helpless,” the woman, a reserves army major, told The Times of Israel. “When people ask me about my status, I can’t say divorced and I can’t say married. I don’t know what to say without divulging intimate details, such as my Jewishness being under investigation.”

The Rabbinical Court cited a 1964 ruling known as the Bassan ruling, which stated that rabbinical courts had no jurisdiction to rule on divorce in cases where at least one of the individuals was not Jewish. The woman in the case, represented by ITIM, a nonprofit that helps individuals navigate Jewish religious bureaucracies, disputed the relevance of the Bassan ruling.

Head of ITIM Rabbi Seth Farber. (Courtesy)

“It does not apply because not even the Rabbinate is saying she’s not Jewish,” said Seth Farber, founder of ITIM. “They’re not even saying they have a concrete reason to suspect the woman’s not Jewish. They just want to look into it, at her expense, while they put her life on hold,” he charged.

Unusually, an expert contracted by the Rabbinate to investigate the woman’s Jewishness determined she was indeed Jewish, but the Rabbinical Court is nonetheless holding up the divorce, according to ITIM. And in 2022, the Rabbinical Courts’ legal adviser’s office said that the woman should be granted a divorce. But this advice, too, has not yet been heeded.

The woman “de facto became an agunah, even though her husband was cooperating with the divorce,” Farber said. Agunah, or chained wife, is a term for a married woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, a Jewish divorce, without which she cannot remarry. The woman and her husband have been living separately since 2017.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau’s father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

The woman, whose mother is Jewish, said the investigation into her Jewishness came as a total surprise to her. “I was certain the hard part was over: We’d worked out custody, division of property. We had signed the papers and the [civil] court had already ratified it. As far as I was concerned, we only had to perform the religious ceremony. I didn’t even know that an investigation into one’s Jewishness was possible,” she said.

The Chief Rabbinate did not immediately respond to a query by The Times of Israel on the legal case, which is being handled by ITIM and the Center for Women’s Justice. No deadline is specified in the High Court of Justice ruling, handed down by the panel of three justices: Isaac Amit, David Mintz and Gila Canfy-Steinitz. This means the Rabbinical Court is not yet in contravention of the High Court’s ruling, but it establishes the jurisprudence for a more specific order later on.

The rabbinical courts, which in recent years have come under increasing scrutiny for women’s equality issues and alleged religious coercion of those who do not share their religious convictions, employ multiple experts who investigate the Jewishness of people whose parents were married outside Israel. The investigations, which can number 4,000 a year, typically are done for people who want to get married in Israel through the Rabbinate.

As part of ‘Equality Day’ protests, a civil marriage is performed outside the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, May 4, 2023.(Tzipi Menashe)

People from countries with established Jewish communities usually are required to provide a letter from a rabbi from their country of origin affirming their Jewishness. But immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communal life shriveled under communism, are often subjected to stringent background checks that, in some cases, end with a declaration that the person is not considered Jewish, preventing them from being married in Israel.

To Farber, the woman’s case is unusual because “she is being put through, essentially, a Jewish inquisition for nothing, based on nothing at all, despite being Jewish according to the Rabbinate’s own standards and records,” he said. Farber accused the Rabbinate of “seeking to expand their jurisdiction on the back of this woman. They seized the opportunity to engage in a witch hunt, completely obliterating this couple’s desire to formally and legally end their marriage,” he said.

The woman’s case is not the Rabbinate’s first divorce-related inconsistency.

One famous case occurred in 2008 when a Rabbinical judge in Jerusalem declared void the Orthodox conversion to Judaism of Yossi Fackenheim, the son of Emil Fackenheim, the late Holocaust survivor and esteemed theologian and Reform rabbi. The declaration was made while reviewing Yossi Fackenheim’s divorce process. Then-state comptroller for the rabbinical courts Eliezer Goldberg criticized the ruling, but  lacked the authority to overturn it.

Most Popular
read more: