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Rabbinical courts given leave to lock up recalcitrant husbands indefinitely

Women’s groups hail landmark decision that will turn up the heat on men who refuse to grant their wives a divorce

Illustrative photo of a wedding (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a wedding (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that husbands who refuse to grant a bill of divorce to their wives can be imprisoned for indefinite periods. A case that has been ongoing for 12 years brought about the ruling, which challenged a law that had only allowed for recalcitrant spouses to be slapped with up to 10 years behind bars.

The case in question involves a couple with four children who began divorce proceedings in 1995 after the woman alleged physical abuse. In 2000 the local rabbinical court handling the file ordered the husband to immediately grant his wife a Jewish bill of divorce, or get.

According to Jewish law, a woman who is refused a get by her husband is considered an aguna, a chained woman, and is forbidden to remarry.

When the man refused, he was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years, the maximum sentence allowed by the Law of Sanctions, which grants rabbinic courts the authority to apply pressure and impose punitive measures on recalcitrant husbands. Among other things, the court can revoke an offender’s driver’s license and passports, and even jail him, until he acquiesces.

In 2011, the rabbinic court agreed to extend the man’s incarceration as per the wife’s request. But the following year, the husband appealed the rabbinical court’s decision in the Supreme Court, arguing that once the maximum punishment had been handed down, the rabbinical court had no authority to further extend it.

On Sunday, a panel comprising Supreme Court President Asher Grunis and justices Zvi Zilbertal and Esther Hayut rejected the man’s claim and allowed the court to extend his imprisonment. In its decision, the Supreme Court emphasized, however, that despite the change to the rabbinical court’s ability to impose jail time, other measures used by the court to pressure recalcitrant husbands would not be affected by the ruling.

Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home party), a former director-general of the rabbinic court system, welcomed the ruling, calling it the “first legislative step toward releasing agunot. Ben Dahan said that the change must be combined with existing laws that impose harsh penalties on recalcitrant husbands.

The religious women’s group Emunah, as well as WIZO and Na’amat, all participated in the proceedings as amici curiae, or “friends of the court’ — outside parties that come to the proceedings to offer evidence.

Emunah chairperson Liora Minka hailed Sunday’s ruling and praised the Supreme Court for following the lesson of the Talmudic sages, who taught, she said, “Anyone who is merciful to the cruel in the end will become cruel to the merciful.”

Minka said the man who had been refusing his wife a get for more than 12 years “has imprisoned himself, and he can release himself whenever he chooses to do so. In the meantime, he is making his wife and his family miserable.”

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