A marriage in Tel Aviv 311 (R).
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Eli Ben-Dahan welcomed on Tuesday a High
Court of Justice ruling that will allow rabbinical courts to imprison for an
unlimited amount of time a man who refuses to give his wife a bill of
In the decision, handed down on Sunday, the High Court
essentially recognized the High Rabbinical Court as having the authority to keep
husbands who refuse to grant their wife a “get,” the term for a bill of
divorces, in jail for more than 10 years, the maximum amount of time that it
could do so prior to the decision.
Instead of relying on its standard
statutory power to imprison husbands refusing to give their wives gets, the High
Rabbinical Court used the court power to hold non-cooperative litigants in
The court generally uses this power for jailing people for
relatively short periods of time, but since it has no specified limit for how
long the court can keep someone in prison, in theory those who refuse to give
gets could effectively be given life sentences.
The overall procedural
context and result came as a result of the High Court rejecting a petition by an
imprisoned get-refusing husband to free him from prison, strike down the High
Rabbinical Court’s expansion of its powers and order the rabbinical courts in
certain cases to issue divorce decrees even without the husband’s
Ben-Dahan, a rabbi and former director of the rabbinical courts
system, said however that the ruling was just one of several reforms needed to
free women whose husbands refuse to give them gets.
“We need a law to
enact stricter punishments on recalcitrant husbands as well as an extradition
law for husbands who flee the country,” said Ben-Dahan. “I will continue in my
activities to advance these laws in the current Knesset term.”
Kehana Dror, the director of the Mavoi Satum divorce rights organization, said
that the ruling was important but insisted that greater reforms to the system
The deeper problem, she said, was that rabbinical judges
only rarely send recalcitrant husbands to prison for refusing to grant the bill
Kehana-Dror noted that there are only nine men currently in
prison for refusing to give a get out of the hundreds of cases in which a woman
has been denied a divorce for an extended period.
“These men deny freedom
to their wives so their freedom should be curtailed until they decide
otherwise,” she stated.
Rabbinical courts are authorized to impose
various punitive sanctions against recalcitrant husbands if they refuse to give
their wife a get once ordered by the court.
These include preventing the
husband from traveling abroad, confiscation of his driver’s license and even
However, the sanctions are not frequently used. According
to Mavoi Satum, punitive sanctions are imposed in as little as 1.5% of all cases
of recalcitrant husbands, because the rabbinical courts are afraid that the
sanctions will invalidate the divorce since the husband would not be giving it
of his own free will.
Mavoi Satum is currently working on legislation
that would pass jurisdiction for the imposition of sanctions from the rabbinical
courts to the civil family courts once a rabbinical court has ordered a husband
to grant his wife a bill of divorce.
The petitioner argued that
regardless of how wrong the husband might be, it was an inconceivable breach of
his fundamental constitutional rights to imprison him indefinitely on the basis
of a general and legislatively undefined power like contempt, which was never
meant to be used for such an extreme punishment.
The High Court rejected
this claim, stating that the very unlimited amount of time in prison made
possible by the contempt power was the perfect “fix” for convincing a litigant
who was not cooperating with the court to cooperate.
In an unusual
development for a case involving a get, the couple in question had actually been
They were first married in 1973 in a civil marriage in the
Soviet Union, and remained married until they divorced in 1987.
the husband made aliya to Israel and became religiously observant. In 1990, the
woman converted to Judaism while she was in Ukraine and also made
The couple remarried in a Jewish religious ceremony in
The second divorce proceedings started in 1993, culminating in the
rabbinical courts ordering them to agree to a divorce in 2000 and ordering the
husband imprisoned in lieu of his agreement to the divorce.