10-year sentence is stretched to ‘indefinite’

In groundbreaking ruling, rabbinical courts decides Meir Gorodetzki will not leave prison until he grants wife a "get."

February 6, 2012 04:11
3 minute read.
Illustrative photo

Prison jail generic. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The supreme rabbinical court of appeals upheld a life sentence handed down to a man who has refused for ten years to give his wife a bill of divorce.

Meir Gorodetzki was imprisoned by the Jerusalem rabbinical court in 2001 for refusing to allow his wife to divorce him and has spent the last ten years in jail for his ongoing refusal to give his wife a bill of divorce, or get.

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Rabbinical courts have sole jurisdiction in matters pertaining to marriage and divorce, and have the ability to mete out punitive measures to convince a husband to give a wife a bill of divorce.

According to Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a get of his own volition before they can be divorced. A woman cannot remarry unless she receives a bill of divorce.

The maximum sentence that the rabbinical courts (beit din) can give for such an offense is ten years of imprisonment.

Gorodetzki’s sentence was coming to an end but his wife requested that he not be released, fearing that he would flee the country and she would never be able to remarry.

The Jerusalem rabbinical court ruled in May 2011 that Gorodetzki would remain in prison for as long as he continues to deny his wife a bill of divorce.

Gorodetzki appealed the case to the rabbinical court of appeals, the Great Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, claiming that the sentence infringed the country’s Basic Law of human dignity and freedom.

In the hearing in November, details of which have only now been released, the panel of rabbinical judges – headed by rabbinical supreme court president Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger – ruled against Gorodetzki. In a creative interpretation of the law, the judges ruled that it is Gorodetzki himself who is restricting his own freedom, as well as that of his wife, and that he holds the keys to his personal liberty.

“If the appellant is released from prison before he has divorced his wife, she will remain an agunah (a woman bound to her husband) for ever… Anyone who allows this would be considered as if they had shed her blood,” Metzger said during the hearing.

“The keys to your release are in your own hands… through the fulfillment of your obligations as a Jew. Release your wife and then you will receive your freedom,” Metzger told him.

Gorodetzki and his wife Tzviya Esther first married in 1983 in a civil marriage in the US but divorced in 1987. Gorodetzki emigrated to Israel in 1989, became Orthodox and joined the Chabad hassidic group. The couple then remarried in 1991.

Gorodetzki’s wife subsequently accused him of physical violence and verbal abuse, and the Jerusalem rabbinical court ordered him to give his wife a get in December 1999.

He refused to grant his wife the get and was imprisoned by the Jerusalem court in October 2001. Despite his incarceration, Gorodetzki continued to deny his wife a get and the court ordered additional measures be taken against him, including barring him from receiving visitors, letters or telephone calls (apart from with his lawyer); preventing him from receiving mehadrin (stringently kosher) food; two 90-day periods of solitary confinement; and barring him from buying food in the prison canteen. The court also instructed the prison to provide psychiatric treatment and denied a request by Gorodetzki for his children to be allowed to visit him.

“We are very happy with this ruling and it sends a very strong message,” said Batya Kehana.

However, it is a shame that these kinds of sanctions get used in so few cases. Instead, it needs to become the norm. In the majority of cases where husbands are sent to prison, they quickly give a get.

She added that for cases with men that exhibit psychological pathologies who are prepared to sit in jail for extremely long periods rather than divorce their wives, the rabbinical courts should annul the marriage retroactively, based on the principle in Jewish law of “mistaken acquisition.” “If a man denies a woman her freedom, then he should have his own freedom denied,” she added.

According to a recent study conducted by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, punitive sanctions are imposed by rabbinical courts in only 1.5% of the cases in which they are applicable.

Such measures include preventing a recalcitrant husband from traveling abroad, confiscating his driver’s license, being struck off from professional associations and imprisonment.

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