A groundbreaking ruling by the Safed Rabbinical Court, which released a woman from her marriage to a man in a seven- year coma, continued to generate controversy on Tuesday, with a group of the country’s most senior haredi rabbis publishing a letter against the decision in the ultra-Orthodox press.
The Safed court issued the ruling back in March, although it only became public in May.
The case relates to a 32-yearold woman whose husband was involved in a motorcycle accident seven years ago and sustained severe injuries. He fell into a coma and has not recovered since.
Jewish law stipulates that a man must freely give his wife a bill of divorce, or a get, for the marriage to be formally terminated.
However, an unconscious person is unable to do so and thereby leaves his wife “chained” to the marriage.
There is leeway in Jewish law to declare such a person dead in regard to the marriage, thus freeing the woman from the marriage.
However, when doctors assessed the case in question several years ago, they initially stated that although the chances of his waking from the coma were very slight, such a possibility did exist. For this reason, the Safed Rabbinical Court would not terminate the marriage, and the woman was unable to obtain a get.
In March, however, the rabbinical court’s three-man panel revisited the case and went to see the husband in hospital.
They concluded that the husband’s physical status was such that there was no serious likelihood that he would ever awaken from his coma.
Using an innovative interpretation of Halacha, the rabbis concluded that they could issue a get zikui – a bill of divorce that is granted on the husband’s behalf, that he would agree and desire to give.
According to this interpretation, it is a positive Torah commandment to end a marriage if the husband is no longer able to fulfill his marital obligations and would therefore want to issue the divorce, allowing the rabbinical judges to enact this wish.
The Safed ruling was issued by court president Rabbi Uriel Lavi, Rabbi Yosef Yagoda and Rabbi Haim Bazak, who noted in the ruling that they had based their decision on the halachic opinions and writings of two of the most authoritative rabbis of the last century: Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, and Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank.
The Safed rabbinical judges also received support for their ruling from the highly respected former president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals, Rabbi Zalman Nehemia Goldberg.
Earlier this month, however, Goldberg retracted his support, with Haaretz reporting that he claimed the Safed rabbis had asked him his opinion on a theoretical case, not on the practical specifics of the case before them.
Nonetheless, Goldberg originally wrote a note appended to the ruling, saying, “After having read that which the venerable Rabbi Uriel Lavi wrote and explained, [I find] his words to be very correct and I join his opinion to permit this special case before us.”
A well-placed source has claimed that Goldberg, a haredi rabbi, was threatened by elements within the ultra-Orthodox sector, but still supports the ruling.
On Tuesday, a number of senior haredi rabbis – including Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the most senior non-hassidic rabbi in the haredi world; Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, who is the nephew of the Hazon Ish and is an authoritative rabbi in his own right; and Rabbi Haim Kanievsky – published a letter in the haredi daily Yated Ne’eman, saying that they did not support the ruling.
“We trembled to see that a ruling was issued to permit a married woman (a woman whose husband is [in a] vegetative state, by means of a get zikui) [to remarry], [a ruling which is] stacked with fabricated reasoning rejected by Jewish law,” the rabbis wrote. “Therefore we are obligated to vigorously protest this decision, [which is against] Jewish law, and the permitting of this married woman [to remarry].”
Attorney Batya Kehana-Dror, who is the director of the Mavoi Satum women’s divorce rights group and who represented the woman in question, called on Tuesday for chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau to publicly support the ruling of the Safed Rabbinical Court.
Kehana-Dror criticized the chief rabbis for failing to support the ruling of one of its rabbinical courts.
“We have still not heard the voices of the honorable chief rabbis in support of Rabbi Lavi and his rabbinical court, who fulfilled their task with decisiveness and courage, truth and faith, and found a halachic solution to the difficult problem of a chained woman,” she said.
“Beyond the halachic dispute stands a woman whose fate and life are dependent on this ruling, and the suffering caused to her in recent days is indescribable, when from one side [efforts are made] to discredit her get, and on the other hand there is no one to defend or save her.”
Yosef, who serves as the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, told the Safed rabbis he disagreed with their ruling before they issued it, but has yet to comment publicly on the case.
There was no response from Yosef to a Jerusalem Post request for comment.