Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks to The Jerusalem Post.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Chief Rabbi David Lau has reiterated a much-praised stance he took in a recent divorce case before the Supreme Rabbinical Court, asserting that it is legitimate for rabbinical judges to require a divorce be given before an agreement on the division of a couple’s assets is reached.
Earlier this month, Lau, sitting as a judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, demanded that a husband who had refused to give his wife a bill of divorce for eight years, grant her the divorce before an agreement on division of the assets was reached.
The many thousands of incidents of divorce refusal that take place in Israel are mostly cases in which the spouse, usually the husband but not uncommonly the wife, demand favorable terms in the division of assets as a condition for acceding to the divorce.
Jewish law requires that a husband willingly give his wife a bill of divorce, and that the wife willingly accept it, in order for a marriage to be terminated. Because in Jewish law a woman may not remarry and have children without a bill of divorce, women seeking a divorce are frequently extorted by their husbands to concede to his demands in the division of assets and other matters.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Pos
t on Sunday, the chief rabbi reiterated that there is no reason that reaching an agreement on assets is necessary before the bill of divorce is granted.
“When the rabbinical court can see that the marriage is over, that the marriage has become empty of all content, then there is no justification to continue arguing about the assets before dealing with the divorce,” said Lau.
The chief rabbi explained that there is no need for a husband to insist on an agreement regarding assets before giving a bill of divorce, and that he could be confident that if his claims to property were indeed valid they would be respected after granting the divorce.
“The rights to property held by the husband are not changed by giving a bill of divorce. The husband will have the same exactly the same rights after the bill of divorce is given as he had before,” Lau said.
The rabbi’s statement during the rabbinical court hearing this month demanding that the husband grant the bill of divorce before a division of the assets was warmly welcomed by women’s rights groups as a milestone in their efforts to prevent the extortion of women.
However, Lau’s approach in this case is not unprecedented and has been implemented in different cases in the regional rabbinical courts in recent years.
Lau noted this himself, saying that the regional courts had in part already adopted this approach. He said though that the lower rabbinical courts do look at the approach of the Supreme Rabbinical Court as a guide to their own rulings.
“The regional rabbinical courts look to the Supreme Rabbinical Court for the ‘spirit of the commander,’” Lau said.
Attorney Batya Kehana-Dror, the director of the divorce rights organization Mavoi Satum, praised Lau for the decision, saying it showed that there was no valid relationship between an agreement on division of assets and the divorce itself.
“If this is the approach that the rabbinical courts will adopt, then we will solve the problem of divorce refusal,” she said.
“It means that if a rabbinical court has issued a ruling ordering a divorce to be granted, then there is no reason to listen to the conditions set out by the husband. The court order to issue a bill of divorce has to be implemented.”
Kehana-Dror said however that the majority of rabbinical judges do not take this approach to divorce recalcitrance and also fail to use the various sanctions at their disposal against recalcitrant partners, such as revocation of driving licenses and passports, and even imprisonment.
In his comments to the Post, Lau said the rabbinical courts used the sanctions, but that they were not always employed because advocates for the use of sanctions in a specific divorce dispute “sometimes cannot see both sides of the issue,” whereas the rabbinical court “sees the entire picture.”
Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and director of the Get Refusal and Agunah project of the International Young Israel Movement and Jewish Agency, also welcomed Lau’s stance.
“In the past five years, this approach of dividing the issues of property and the divorce itself has been implemented in several cases,” she said.
“We have finally reached a stage in which Chief Rabbi David Lau, as the head of a judicial panel on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, has taken the same stance. Perhaps now this policy will begin to be implemented more broadly.”