Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the High Court on the gas deal.
(photo credit: GIL YOCHANAN/POOL)
In a landmark ruling last week, the High Court of Justice defended the basic human rights of a lone woman against a chauvinistic rabbinic establishment.
The “Aguna from Safed” case dealt with the tragic story of a 34-year-old woman whose husband fell into a coma as the result of a serious motorcycle accident.
Since the accident nine years ago, the woman has lived in limbo. She is unable to end her marriage with her comatose husband and remarry, because marital laws in the State of Israel are governed by Halacha. And according to Orthodox Jewish law, only through the consent of her husband can a woman divorce. Since the husband is alive but is unable to provide a writ of divorce [get in Hebrew], the woman from Safed remains “chained” to him.
In the summer of 2014, after verifying with doctors that there was little to no chance that the man would ever regain consciousness, three judges of the Safed Rabbinical Court issued an innovative ruling that sought to free the “Aguna from Safed” from her husband in order to allow her to remarry.
Essentially, the rabbis argued that because freeing an aguna to remarry was a positive commandment, the husband would undoubtedly agree to give the writ of divorce if he were able to. Rabbi Uriel Lavi, Rabbi Yosef Yagoda and Rabbi Haim Bazak reached the conclusion that freeing the woman to remarry was the unspoken will of the comatose husband and proceeded to grant her a divorce.
However, a group of rabbis within the Chief Rabbinate protested what they saw as an overly lenient ruling, and in the name of a particularly reactionary interpretation of Jewish law, called to halt the divorce proceedings.
A third party, representing these rabbis but who was unconnected to the “Aguna of Safed” case, appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court to block the ruling of the Safed Rabbinical Court. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who serves as head of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, joined forces with the reactionaries.
Thankfully, the High Court stepped in and upheld the lenient ruling of the Safed Rabbinical Court. Among their arguments, the justices argued that returning the woman to her “chained” status would violate the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. The court essentially ruled that even in the name of Jewish law, the chief rabbi did not have a mandate to trample the basic human rights of a woman.
While we applaud the High Court’s decision, the “Aguna of Safed” case raises a number of questions regarding the place of Jewish law in a state that purports to be both Jewish and democratic. Is it possible to reconcile Halacha and the rabbis who interpret it to a modern legal system in a democratic state? We would argue that it is not.
Religious faith is ultimately a private matter best left up to the individual to decide. Coercing secular Israelis to marry and divorce solely within a religious framework – as is the case in Israel – infringes on the rights of citizens. And while the original rationale for giving an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over marriage and divorce was to protect the unity of the Jewish people and prevent assimilation or a split between segments of the population, today it is exceedingly easy to marry abroad in nearby Cyprus and get that marriage recognized by the State of Israel.
In addition, empowering the Chief Rabbinate with a monopoly over interpreting Jewish law has led to extremism. As noted by Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, an advocacy organization that represented the “Aguna of Safed,” the strong stance taken by Yosef and the rabbinic establishment against the rabbinical court in Safed will likely intimidate other innovative rabbis into refraining from issuing similar rulings.
Instead of funding a reactionary Chief Rabbinate that discourages any deviation from its narrow interpretation of Halacha, the Jewish state should encourage creative and unique solutions to real-life marital law cases. The only way to achieve this goal is to dismantle the rabbinate’s monopoly and sever the ties between religion and state. Halacha should be allowed to develop freely and organically without the intervention of a politicized Chief Rabbinate, as it did for centuries before the creation of the State of Israel.