To ‘unchain’ Jewish women, rabbinate could extend reach across borders

Amid heavy criticism, Knesset debates bill to grant Israel’s rabbinical courts oversight of Jewish divorce cases, including for those wed in civil unions

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

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

Numerous French Jewish woman have turned to Israeli representatives in recent days hopeful that the rabbinical court can help resolve their status as agunot — “chained” women who have been refused a religious bill of divorce — court advocate Katy Clara Ayache said Tuesday.

News of Israel’s legislative attempts to endow the Jewish state’s rabbinical courts with the power to sanction non-citizen Jews who have withheld a get [Jewish bill of divorce] from their spouses reached the French Jewish press last weekend, she told a Knesset panel on Tuesday.

An article promised readers that a “solution” to the plight of these women-in-limbo, who cannot remarry under Jewish law, could “soon be found,” she added in French-accented Hebrew.

An outpouring of queries ensued.

In France, “it’s not a phenomenon, it’s a mega-phenomenon” consisting of “hundreds” of agunah cases, said Ayache.

Under Jewish law, a marriage cannot be dissolved unless the man consents to a get. Rabbinical courts cannot force a man to give his wife a get, but in Israel they can impose harsh sanctions, including the rare jail sentence, and public shaming on someone the judges determine is unjustly withholding a get and turning the women into what is known as an agunah.

With little or no legal sanction power in their home countries’ rabbinical courts, proponents view the Israeli government bill as a way for disenfranchised Jewish women in countries around the world, lacking legal options, to seek a religious divorce in Israel.

But the government-backed bill debated by the Knesset’s Justice, Law and Constitution Committee on Tuesday has been widely criticized by Knesset lawmakers (including from the coalition), activists working on behalf of agunot, leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, and international law experts for its far-reaching, and, they argue, highly problematic extension of Orthodox legal authority over — potentially — all of the Jews in the entire world who are embroiled in divorce proceedings.

Though fairly advanced in the legislative pipeline — once approved by the committee, the bill will be brought to the Knesset plenum for its final two votes — the proposed legislation was deadlocked on Tuesday by representatives from the coalition Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu parties who vowed to block it unless significant changes were made.

“If this law passes in its current version, there will be two religious institutions in the world that claim exclusive judicial authority: rabbinical courts and Islamic State,” charged Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky.

The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerualem. (Flash90)
Illustrative: The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerualem. (Flash90)

“As a party, we have difficulties with this bill and don’t see how we can let it advance,” said MK Rachel Azaria, of the 10-member Kulanu party. The coalition objections make it all but certain the bill will undergo revisions before its final Knesset votes.

The argument on Tuesday was centered on both the centralized power that would be granted to the Chief Rabbinate on Jewish divorce cases, and a contentious proposed clause that could even see Jews who wed in civil unions abroad facing legal action in the Israeli rabbinate.

“Ostensibly, under this bill, the divorce of Jewish homosexuals would be under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts,” wryly remarked Nitzan Caspi Shiloni, an attorney with the Center for Women’s Justice NGO.

The proposal

The bill would expand the Israeli rabbinical courts’ authority to preside over a divorce suit between two Jews married according to Jewish law, provided the man or woman being sued for a divorce is residing in Israel or the petitioning party has lived in the country for a year.

The bill would require the party seeking to dissolve the marriage to have already attempted to obtain a divorce, both civil and Jewish, in their country of origin. But it leaves a loophole for “special circumstances” in which the rabbinical courts could waive this requirement.

If all those conditions are met, and the Israeli court accepts the need for a divorce, it can then ask the husband to give the wife a get, the required divorce document.

A meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council in August (photo credit: via Facebook)

If he refuses to issue the get or she refuses to accept it, the bill would allow the rabbinical court to impose the raft of sanctions that it is already empowered to place on Israeli citizens, including fines, frozen assets, and in rare cases even imprisonment.

The rabbinical courts would also be given legal jurisdiction over couples who wed in civil unions outside of Israel, under the condition that the party seeking a religious divorce has lived in Israel for a year; the last place the pair lived as a couple was in Israel; or “special circumstances,” it stipulates.

Israel does not recognize civil unions conducted in the country and all personal status issues are handled by the Chief Rabbinate. However, couples who enter civil unions abroad can be later registered as married by the state. As a result, many Israelis seeking to avoid being married in a religious ceremony by the rabbinate opt to wed abroad.

In a rare move, the representative from the rabbinical courts, Rabbi Shimon Yaakoby, sided with an earlier version of the bill by opposition Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie rather than the more sweeping government proposal. He proposed that the issue of civil unions be debated as a separate bill.

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie at the Knesset, February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It is important for us that this passes with consensus, and therefore we are willing to divide it so that we can seriously discuss the first part,” he said.

Lavie, who said her bill was mostly aimed at helping women from the former Soviet Union, told the panel she would support the government bill if the issue of civil unions was excised.

A laundry list of objections

The criticism of the government proposal at Tuesday’s meeting was extensive, ranging from opinions submitted by international law experts on the pitfalls of giving the rabbinical courts international powers on marriage and divorce, to activists who fretted the bid could backfire and be abused by disgruntled spouses to extort money.

“It is important to remember that the courts in Israel have an agenda that discriminates against women in divorce proceedings and considers them to be subject to the wishes of their husbands and are required to meet the husband’s divorce conditions,” charged Batya Kahana-Dror, head of the Mavoi Satum organization which aids agunot, in a statement ahead of the hearing.

“To a large extent, the bill is designed to entrench the rabbinate’s control over Judaism and world Jewry, including those who did not accept any religious authority and chose a civil marriage,” she added.

Others argued the proposal would disempower local rabbinical courts around the world, could inadvertently open up more people to invasive Jewish background checks by the rabbinate, could result in preferential treatment for non-Israelis in the rabbinical courts (the proposed law lays out swift deadlines for action by the Israeli rabbinical courts upon receiving a petition by non-citizens), and exacerbate the growing divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

“One of my colleagues across the sea thought I was joking [when I told him about the initiative], because it can’t be that the Israeli government would legislate something that relates to them without consulting with them at all [or] hearing their opinion on something that is liable to affect their authority,”  said Dr. Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement.

“We are in an unprecedented crisis with world Jewry, and instead of sending in a firefighter, [Israel is] sending in a pyromaniac,” he said. “From a small monopoly, they want to create a conglomerate.”

Israel Reform leader Gilad Kariv argued the bill would make rabbinical courts across the world, including Orthodox ones, reluctant to rule on divorce cases.

“We will create a situation in which rabbinical courts in the Diaspora will be afraid to touch divorces, just like on the issue of conversion,” he said.

JTA contributed to this report.




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