A widow who was unable to remarry for 13 years due to the refusal of her dead husband’s family to allow a little- known ceremony to be performed has recently been denied the right to finally marry her partner of over 10 years by the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.
The case involves the ancient and now defunct practice of levirate marriage and the arcane ceremony still required to obviate the biblical requirement.
A levirate marriage is a particular stipulation of Jewish law, which is no longer operative, in which a man has to marry his brother’s widow if the married couple did not have children.
Any children of the new marriage would carry the name of the dead man, so his name is perpetuated.
Despite the fact that levirate marriage is no longer performed, Orthodox practice stipulates that the “halitza” ceremony, which symbolically releases the widow and her former brother-in-law from the obligation of marrying each other, must still be performed in order to allow the woman to remarry.
The ceremony requires the widow to take off the shoe of her brother-inlaw, known as the “yabam,” and spit in front of him.
Shlomit Lavi, now 42, was happily married to her husband, Shlomi, for a year and a half until he died 13 years ago.
She initially believed that performing the halitza ceremony would be a formality, but her father-in-law demanded that she pay NIS 200,000 for his son, the brother of her late husband, to perform the ceremony.
Shlomi Lavi’s family claim Shlomit misused money that was supposed to be used for his treatment, although she vehemently denies this.
According to Lavi, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, in which the case was heard, asked her to compromise, but her former father-in-law was not willing to reduce his demands to a sum she could afford, and his family filed three separate suits in the family courts against her in a process that took 13 years to complete.
Earlier this year, a judge in the family court finally arranged a compromise agreement between the two sides, whereby Lavi agreed to pay the family NIS 20,000, and in return the family promised to permit the halitza ceremony to be conducted.
In July this year, Shlomit flew to Canada, where her brother-in-law resides, and the halitza ceremony was performed under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbinical court in Toronto.
However, in the years during which the family refused to perform the halitza ceremony, Shlomit found a new partner and had four children with him, but was unable to marry him since Jewish law prohibits a woman from marrying without having performed halitza.
But despite having finally completing the process, which should have permitted her to remarry, the state rabbinical court in Jerusalem refused in July to grant her permission to remarry, even though it recognized that the halitza ceremony had been performed in accordance with Jewish law.
The rabbinical court ruled that since she had lived with a man and had children with him before the halitza ceremony was performed, she was no longer permitted to marry him according to Jewish law.
Tehila Cohen, an attorney and rabbinical court advocate for Yad L’Isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, a women’s rights group, represented Shlomit in court.
Cohen noted that there is a basis in Jewish law for the rabbinical judges to prevent Shlomit marrying her current partner, but strongly criticized the Jerusalem court’s decision, pointing out that there are also opinions in Jewish law to allow her to marry him.
Senior authorities in Jewish law – including the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a revered arbiter of Jewish law – were lenient in such cases, she added.
Lavi will appeal the case to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals, although the process will take years because of a large case-backlog in the court.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Lavi strongly condemned the ruling of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court and its attitude toward her throughout the process.
“The judges were almost abusive toward me, they treated me as if I had slept around or cheated on my husband,” she said. “They told me that because of me my late husband has no rest or peace.”
Lavi claimed that one of the judges had told her that part of the reason she could not marry her partner was because she is Sephardi whereas he is Ashkenazi.
She also strongly criticized the court for not working harder to persuade her husband’s family to agree to the halitza ceremony, and noted it had never challenged her father-in-law’s involvement nor requested that he present a power-of-attorney document to act on behalf of his son, her husband’s brother.
Lavi was equally critical regarding the ruling preventing her from marrying her current partner, Alon.
“This is my life, of course I’m going to find someone else and have children,” she said. “I was 29 when my husband died, do they think I’ll remain alone and not have children for so long? It’s the basic right of a Jew in Israel to get married.”
Lavi insisted that she views the halitza ceremony as valid within Jewish tradition, although she said it had been hard for her to perform, likening it to a second funeral for her husband .
“Once the ceremony was done it gave me great tranquility that the soul of my husband could find rest and that this burden on my heart was now relieved,” she said.
Attorney Cohen was also critical of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, and said that it should look for ways to prevent the possible abuse of power inherent in the requirement for halitza.
“The commandment of halitza gives to a man who is a stranger to the woman, a man who the woman did not choose and did not marry, the power to control her life,” said Cohen, who is one of seven attorneys and rabbinical court advocates working for Yad L’Isha, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network of educational and social-justice organizations.
“It is expected of the Beit Din [court] to prevent in every way possible the abuse of this power by the yabam [brother-in-law] for purposes not connected to the mitzva,” she said.
“When a woman is chained to the yabam, she does not however give up on her right to a partner and to bring children into the world. If after the halitza she wants to get married in accordance with Jewish law, the more lenient opinions in Jewish law should be relied upon to allow her to marry in accordance with Jewish law,” she added.
In response to a request for comment from the Post, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court noted that it was the claims of the family for money that had delayed the performance of the halitza ceremony.
It said that its ruling preventing her from remarrying was made in accordance with Jewish law, although it noted the more lenient position in Jewish law that would not prohibit her from marrying her partner, and said she could appeal the decision to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
The rabbinical court did not address Lavi’s claim that one of the justices said part of the reason she couldn’t marry her partner is because she is Sephardi and he is Ashkenazi.