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Ties that chafe: Israel’s stagnant marital system leaves thousands trapped

On International Women’s Day, activists and observers lament the tight rabbinate control over marriage and divorce in Israel, with few changes in the system expected anytime soon

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Women's rights activists hold a rally outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on March 8, 2021, during International Women's Day, in protest of their inability to divorce. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Women's rights activists hold a rally outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on March 8, 2021, during International Women's Day, in protest of their inability to divorce. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When Elina Bardach-Yalov, a Knesset member for the Yisrael Beytenu party, wanted to get remarried in 2009, she was shocked by the hoops she was forced to jump through by the Israeli rabbinate.

After all, she had married through the Israeli rabbinate in 2000 in a marriage that ended in 2006 with a religious divorce through a rabbinical court in the United Kingdom. Her first husband had already remarried in Israel without any problem, once their overseas divorce was ratified by the rabbinate.

But when Bardach-Yalov submitted a copy of that divorce ratification to her local Israeli rabbinate branch, she was told they needed the original. So she set off to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to request the original rabbinate form that her husband had received approving their overseas divorce.

“And there I heard a sentence that I remember to this day,” the freshman MK recalled in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “‘The fact that he divorced you still doesn’t mean that you were divorced from him,’” she was told. “It took me a minute or two to even comprehend that sentence.”

After jumping through hoops, and being subject to an additional hearing – again, despite her ex-husband having already remarried in Israel – Bardach-Yalov managed to have her divorce approved and she remarried, once again through the rabbinate. But the experience left a bad taste in her mouth.

“This is a classic example of an absurd situation,” she said. “The treatment I received at the Manchester Beth Din and the treatment I received here in Israel cannot compare; they were 180 degrees different.” She said the attitude of the Israeli rabbinate — in particular to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as well as many from Ethiopia – “does not bring people closer. It pushes them away.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Elina Bardach-Yalov at a Knesset hearing. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

Bardach-Yalov says her story is common. “I, personally, don’t know any woman who has come away from the rabbinate with a positive feeling… at some point, they all experienced a feeling of degradation.”

Experts and observers told The Times of Israel ahead of International Women’s Day that the situation disproportionately affects women who often have little recourse within the system.

A few signs of movement

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has made an unprecedented push for reforms in the religion and state status quo over the past six months, overseeing legislation that overhauls kosher certification and pushing for a significant shakeup on issues of conversion to Judaism.

In October, Kahana wrote on Facebook that he does not believe in “forcing” couples to wed through the rabbinate, and that “the tension between religion and state should be resolved by broad social agreements.” He added: “I am convinced that there is a way to allow couples who cannot or do not want to get married through the rabbinate to institutionalize their relationship in the country.”

Civil marriage does not exist in Israel; any couple who wants to wed must do so through their own religious bodies — Jews through the rabbinate, Muslims through sharia courts and Christians through their denominations. If the members of the couple come from two different religions, or if either has no religion, they cannot legally wed in the State of Israel. And in denominations of Catholicism that do not believe in divorce, a legal divorce is not obtainable in Israel.

The desire to work toward marriage reform was cited in the coalition agreements of Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz, Labor and Blue and White, but until last month the issue had rarely been discussed in the Knesset.

According to an Israeli television report last month later denied by all parties, Kahana is considering a deal that would allow civil unions between Israelis to take place in foreign embassies and diplomatic missions in Israel — technically foreign soil — in exchange for removing the clause in the Law of Return that grants citizenship to individuals with just one Jewish grandparent. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman immediately rejected the idea that any such deal existed.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky chairs a meeting of the Knesset Religious Services Committee on October 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A day after the TV report, the Knesset Religious Services Committee held a hearing on the issue of civil marriage. Committee chair Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky denied any such deal was in the works, saying her party “would never allow such a thing.” Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur-Paz told the committee that his party also does not support any such agreement.

Kahana did not attend or take part in the Knesset hearing, and neither did any other minister. A spokesman for Kahana declined to comment on his current position on the issue, or on whether there were current efforts within the government to promote change. Malinovsky said that representatives of the Chief Rabbinate as well as lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox political parties were invited to the hearing, but declined.

“The diversity of the coalition [makes it] very complicated to try to pursue things that are beyond” the reforms in kosher certification and conversion, said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, a group that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy. But he believes that progress can be made regardless. “It’s not something that just happens in one day… I think there will be progress, but I don’t think there will be legislation under this government… there’s just too much diversity.”

Bardach-Yalov, however, stressed that “there are quite a few elements in this coalition who view the issue as important.”

But even instituting civil marriage in Israel – which would be a major shakeup of the current system – would not solve many of the current issues surrounding divorce.

Caught in the system

Each year, observers estimate that thousands of Israelis who seek to divorce are stymied by the religious courts, which hold a monopoly over the process and often drag their feet when it comes to taking action against recalcitrant husbands. With little room for recourse, many women, commonly referred to as “agunot,” wait years — if not decades — to finally be freed from broken marriages.

In Talmudic terms, an “agunah” — which literally means chained or anchored — is a woman whose husband has gone missing or whose death cannot be confirmed, leaving her chained to him in marriage, since Jewish law mandates that it is the husband who must hand his wife a get, or writ of divorce. In modern times, the word tends to refer to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get. But in recent years in the State of Israel, the term could arguably be applied to women – or men – seeking to divorce or remarry but who are blocked from doing so by the rabbinic courts, not their spouses.

A view inside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court’s Division for Agunot on September 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“I happen to have a very expansive definition,” said ITIM’s Farber. “Today I think an ‘agunah’ is not a woman whose husband has disappeared. It’s a woman who cannot get remarried because of the halacha [Jewish law].” Under that definition he said, there are thousands of women unable to remarry, and thousands more unable to marry at all.

Exact figures of the numbers of women unable to obtain a divorce are impossible to come by. Mavoi Satum, a nonprofit that works to assist agunot, says that one in every five women in Israel who seek to divorce encounter get refusal. Yad La’isha – an organization affiliated with the Ohr Torah Stone educational umbrella that assists agunot – estimates that there are about 2,400 new cases each year, while ITIM suggests the actual figure is higher, with many unreported cases. The rabbinate claims the figures are lower, though its accounting is generally disputed by activists.

Despite decades of calls for reform from lawmakers, nonprofits and even some religious figures – and close to a dozen organizations established to battle the current situation – little has changed since the status quo governing religion and state came into effect 75 years ago.

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court seen on August 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that around 450,000 people in Israel are officially registered as having “no religion” – the vast majority from the former Soviet Union – and therefore cannot wed in Israel in any legal manner. Tens of thousands of other individuals, including those in the gay community, those branded with the status of “mamzer” — a child born as the result of a relationship forbidden by Jewish law — and those seeking to marry someone of another or no religion are also unable to get married in Israel.

For legal purposes, Israel recognizes weddings performed abroad, including same-sex unions. But if a Jewish heterosexual couple weds outside the country and seeks to divorce in Israel, they will still have no choice but to divorce through the rabbinical courts.

According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, the number of Israelis marrying abroad grew 16% over the past decade, from 4,853 in 2010 to 5,650 in 2018 (more recent statistics were omitted since they were skewed by COVID). The Central Bureau of Statistics says that a full 25% of those who have wed outside the country in the past 20 years have been couples made up of two Jewish citizens.

Rachel Stomel of the Center for Women’s Justice at a protest in March 2021 outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on International Women’s Day. (Laura Ben-David)

“The entire foundation of what makes Israel a Jewish state in a lot of ways rests on women,” said Rachel Stomel, an activist who works in communications for the Center for Women’s Justice – a nonprofit that advocates for women’s legal equality under Jewish law – noting that Jewish law only recognizes matrilineal descent. “And anytime religion and state clashes, it’s often women who pay the price of that, and women who suffer the most.”

Those who have worked with the system tell unthinkable stories inflicted by the combination of recalcitrant husbands and stubborn court systems: a woman whose husband was indicted for attempting to kill her, but was still questioned by the court if she truly wanted to divorce him — and waited more than six months to receive a get; an ex-husband who attempted to claim his ex-wife’s new child as his own offspring just for revenge; a woman who was told by a rabbinical court — after 30 years of waiting for a divorce — that she would have to pay her husband a million shekels or remain trapped; and a woman pressured to hand over full control over a frozen embryo to her ex-husband in exchange for a divorce.

Trapped by the state

In 2019, “Dina” wanted to get divorced — and so did her husband. But the couple was shocked when the rabbinical court refused to allow their split to move forward despite them both requesting it.

“We applied together to get divorced. It was a mutual request,” she told The Times of Israel, noting that they agreed to all of their terms in family court — the secular court system that runs parallel to the religious courts — and turned to the rabbinic court just to secure a get, as required. “And then suddenly they decided that they needed to check what’s going on with me, to check who I am.”

She could not understand the problem, since Dina – who is a native of Russia – and her husband – who was born in Israel to an Iraqi family – were married through the rabbinate in 2006 without any major issues.

“I’m Jewish enough to get married but I’m not Jewish enough to get divorced,” she pointed out.

The court said they would not grant a get unless Dina agreed to undergo an investigation into her Jewishness. She refused, and appealed to a higher court, which rejected her petition. Now, Dina, 39, is waiting to file a petition to the High Court that is being prepared by the Center for Women’s Justice.

“I’m legally still married, I’m stuck, I’m basically an agunah by the state, not by my husband,” she said.

Dina said she has very little contact with her husband, but she’s still inexplicably tied to him legally.

“You cannot escape it,” she said. “Anytime you need something bureaucratic in your life, anything that involves a department of government, you have an issue. You need to explain yourself to somebody, you need to explain the whole story.”

And her tricky status, she said, has prevented her from having another child, since she would be running the risk of the state declaring him or her a “mamzer,” an illegitimate child, who would never be allowed to marry through the rabbinate. “Even if I want more children, I don’t even think about it, I don’t allow myself to think about it. I truly feel stuck.”

Dina said she would not consider getting remarried in the future. “I don’t want to be in a position to give anybody that power over me ever again,” she said. “It takes away your choice.”

Struggle for reform

Farber, who founded ITIM 20 years ago, said that while some progress has been made on issues of marriage and divorce, there is still much to be done.

“When it comes to marriage, you can open a marriage file anywhere [in the country], you can bring witnesses anywhere. All that stuff changed in the last 20 years,” he said. “There’s competition when it comes to marriage, which is awesome. You can choose where you want to go and get the service where you want to go. And you can choose your rabbi.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM. (Courtesy)

But on the issue of divorce, Farber said, “the ‘agunah’ issue has become more prominent… but we’re not there yet… I think we’re a part of a process, an unfolding process. Unfortunately, a lot of people suffer in the process.”

ITIM can count many wins on issues of marriage and conversion, he said, but on divorce, “we’ve been a little more successful in raising the consciousness of the problem here, but not in terms of changing the way things operate day-to-day.”

Tamar Oderberg, who has worked as an attorney with Yad La’isha for close to 10 years, said that “today there are dayanim [rabbinical court judges] who are more open to hear the woman and to be empathetic, and they use the sanctions that they can, where they can.”

“There is progress, but it’s not enough,” she said. “There are more things that they can do that they sometimes hesitate to do.”

Stomel suggested that the current situation in Israel is unsustainable.

“We don’t have a full democracy,” said Stomel. “We have a partial theocracy, which sounds bad, but it’s kind of true. Basic civil rights, marriage and divorce — these are human rights,” she said.

“The State of Israel is OK with the fact that [women are] not equal, and that’s not so great,” Stomel added. “Especially if we want Israel to be a thriving democratic country that is sustainable. We can’t sustain a system that has built in problems with civil liberties that are so prominent – because this affects every single person.”

Drastic measures

“Sarah” never got married through the rabbinate. A native of Israel, she met her husband in New York, wed in a civil ceremony in Texas and held an unregistered religious wedding in Israel at the urging of his family.

Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)

The couple lived happily together – mostly in the US – for close to 15 years. But after he suffered a psychotic break following news about an immediate family member’s disturbing crimes, she felt trapped in a dangerous situation.

When her husband became ill, Sarah picked up her three children – one from a previous relationship – and got the entire family on a plane to Israel. As soon as they landed, Sarah realized that she was pregnant.

“I took him to his mother’s house – I needed help,” she said. “I couldn’t handle the whole thing… He wasn’t connected to Earth at all. For something like six months he was just totally out there; there was no one there and I was pregnant while taking care of three children.”

With care and medication, Sarah said, he became largely better, but one day he decided to stop taking his pills, and he suffered another attack. And she realized that she had no choice but to end their marriage.

“It started with my children calling, frightened, while I was at work,” she said. “The minute I felt that my children were scared, that our life was turning crazy, and I was not not happy, my children weren’t happy… I made a choice for myself and my children.”

Acquiring a legal divorce was no easy feat. “‘Over my dead body, you’re not going to get a divorce ever, forget about it,’” was what he said when she told him she needed to end their marriage. Sarah sought help from Yad La’isha, and eventually the rabbinic court issued a warrant to force her husband to appear before the judges.

For two and a half years, she said, the court tried to get him to issue a get, to no avail. They played nice, they made threats, they issued fines and nothing seemed to work. Then a couple of months ago, they finally used their authority to send him to jail.

“It took two weeks and he gave me a get,” Sarah recounted. “It took two and  a half years to get to jail. They could have saved the court money, and time, and paperwork if they would just [have done] it quicker. ‘You don’t want to give a get? OK, take two weeks in jail.’”

Yad La’isha’s Oderberg said “it’s rare, it’s very rare” that rabbinical court judges will place a get refuser in prison, “and a lot of years can pass by” before they reach that decision.

“It’s a very dramatic sanction… it’s very extreme,” said the attorney. She noted that the judges have other sanctions at their disposal – including invalidating a driver’s license, freezing bank accounts, public shaming and financial sanctions – “but when I look at the whole system, the sanctions come after a period of time, and it can be a very long time.”

Yad La’Isha attorney Tamar Oderberg and an anonymous client who received her ‘get’ earlier this month after 35 years. (Courtesy)

Sarah said she doesn’t blame the rabbinical judges for her plight, nor does she want to change Jewish law.

“I think there are solutions in the halacha that they do not implement,” she said, including annulment of marriages, the notion of “provisional weddings” that could enable courts to retroactively cancel nuptials, and better education and understanding for couples before they wed. “I didn’t understand anything – it’s not fair. And I didn’t have any part in the ceremony. Maybe we should work on that.”

Ripped from the headlines

The seeming inequities in Israel’s marital system came to the surface in an unexpected way in November, when two Israeli celebrities tied the knot. The union between ultra-Orthodox actor and singer Shuli Rand and the secular TV host Tzofit Grant raised eyebrows even before their wedding.

But the gossip items about the new couple included news unusual for your average wedding announcement: that Rand was still married both legally and under Jewish law to his first wife, Michal Rand, who refused to agree to divorce him. But he had been granted permission to marry again – and to have two legal wives under Israeli law – by what’s known in Hebrew as a heter meah rabbanim, literally, the approval of 100 rabbis.

Israeli singer Shuli Rand performs in Gush Etzion on February 9, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

While bigamy is illegal in Israel and punishable by prison, an exception is built in to the law to allow for an exemption for Jewish men in this situation. The news of Rand’s remarriage, many activists said, pointed out the willingness of rabbis to bend the rules and allow men to move on with their lives, but not women.

“On the one hand, it’s good that there are halachic solutions for people who are stuck,” said Stomel. “But when the halachic solutions are not across the board, if they’re only for men, and only for Jewish men, then it’s taking something that already has a really huge imbalance of power and furthering that even more.”

Stomel estimated that the religious courts allow already married men to remarry about 10-12 times a year. While it is relatively rare, she said, it is much more common than the courts officially declaring a man a get refuser and imprisoning him until he complies, which she said happens only two or three times a year.

“They have all these tools that they can use to punish a get refuser and they use those – really you can count on one hand how many men they put in jail a year,” she said. “It’s so, so rare.”

Sarah said she heard about Rand’s remarriage while waiting on the rabbinical court to further pressure her now ex-husband to release her.

“Shuli Rand proved beyond all shred of doubt that women and men are not equal in this matter,” Sarah said, noting that even without the special approval to remarry, Rand’s future children would never be given a “mamzer” status. “Men are free to date, and to have more children, and that is the essence of the problem — of being jailed by an ex-spouse.”

“I’m happy for Shuli Rand that he didn’t have to go through what I’m going through,” she added. “But I don’t think I deserve to go through it either!”

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