The rabbinate’s own wake-up call

Israel’s Rabbinical Court is indeed more powerful that any of its counterparts in the Diaspora. Empowered by civil law, it holds sole jurisdiction over the personal status of Jews in Israel.

A GLASS of wine is poured during a Jewish wedding ceremony.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A GLASS of wine is poured during a Jewish wedding ceremony.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two of Israel’s best Rabbinical Court judges, to my mind, in terms of compassion and effectiveness, failed to compel a famous American long-time “get-” (Jewish divorce writ) refuser to free his “chained wife,” an aguna according to Jewish law.
As reported by Jeremy Sharon (“16-year aguna,” August 23, 2019), no get was produced, despite the unconventional efforts of Chief Rabbi David Lau in his hotly debated restriction of the burial of the get-refuser’s mother in Israel, followed by a financial “guarantee” to arrange the Jewish divorce. In fact, those efforts were disputed by the get-refuser himself in an online video, spurning those very rabbis. From the zenith of seeming power, the rabbis fell to the nadir of seeming helplessness.
The ruling to prevent the burial of the get-refuser’s mother until he would give the get was reportedly handed down by an Orthodox American Rabbinical Court – The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. This decree was a development of social sanctions which can be employed against a get-refuser, based on the instructions of the 12th-century sage, Rabbeinu Tam. Apparently, Rabbi Lau received this ruling from the American Rabbinical Court and chose to implement it.
As quoted in The Jerusalem Post, Lau’s spokesman said, “An agreement had been reached between a representative of the woman and the family members of the divorce refuser in the Supreme Rabbinical Court,” and a guarantee of $20,000 was given to ensure the get would be forthcoming. The result was a dismal failure, compounded by the get-refuser’s scorn of the Israeli Rabbinical Courts.
Israel’s Rabbinical Court is indeed more powerful that any of its counterparts in the Diaspora. Empowered by civil law, it holds sole jurisdiction over the personal status of Jews in Israel. Furthermore, Rabbinical Court judges can levy a whole array of sanctions against one refusing to give a get. On the surface, this empowerment is a blessing, for it can be used to end years of suffering of a victim of get-refusal. However, upon deeper examination, this very empowerment conceals the contemporary helplessness of rabbinical judges to free a woman chained to a recalcitrant husband.
This vulnerability is shared by all Rabbinical Courts – whether in Israel or in the Diaspora. At its root lies the axiom that the power to dissolve a marriage lies in the hands of the husband. This halachic (Jewish law) tenet not only gives the husband unlimited power over the chained wife – it gives the husband power over the very court that supposedly holds sway over him! For as halacha stands today, unlike a civil court, a Rabbinical Court cannot issue a divorce decree changing the spouses’ personal status from married to re-marriageable. The husband holds the power to divorce his wife, while the Rabbinical Court holds no such power.
A MULTITUDE OF changes in society in recent decades has given rise to the escalation of get-refusal. Nevertheless, the rabbinic establishment in Israel has countered complaints by pointing to the powers it has, as a recognized court of law in Israel, to levy sanctions and even order the incarceration of a get-refuser. This is all well and good, even working many-a-time to conclude a lengthy, arduous litigation. However, this Rabbinical Court’s response covers up the essence of the problem – halachic inability to free the aguna via its own ruling.
The cross-continent debacle should serve as the rabbinate’s own wake-up call – both in Israel and in the Diaspora. It is imperative to correct the belief in its own authority which will hold sway over recalcitrant husbands. It is time to use the halacha in a systemic manner to confer the power to dissolve a Jewish marriage into the body where it belongs. Transfer the power from the hands of the husband to the hands of the Rabbinical Court.
The great Rabbinical Court judges and Torah scholars of today are capable of developing a systemic procedure to this end. Jewish society is crying out for it. Indeed, it is not only in their power to do so, it is their responsibility, as the Talmud (Yevamot 90b) states, “He who sanctifies in marriage does so conditional to the rabbis’ judgment.” The great sage Rashi clarifies: “It is conditional to the rabbis’ judgment as he states, ‘According to the laws of Moses and Israel.’”
Nonetheless, crying out to the rabbinate and waiting for a blessed development is not enough for the individual about to enter into an Orthodox Jewish marriage. One must shoulder responsibility for oneself and one’s community. Preventive solutions, on an individual level, can be employed against the possibility of get-refusal or becoming a classic aguna. Caring scholars of Jewish law have developed and disseminated documents which are composed to prevent such tragedies.
For the prevention of get-refusal on the part of the husband or the wife, the prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect ( has been signed by thousands of couples during the past decades and has proven to be effective. For the prevention of a woman becoming a classic aguna through a husband’s disappearance or his falling into a permanent vegetative state, Rabbi Prof. Michael Broyde’s Tripartite Agreement is the strongest contemporary halachic agreement, although thankfully, the need to implement it has not yet arisen.
The resounding self-evident wake-up call, combined with the aggregate of individuals protecting themselves and their daughters, should spur the rabbinate to escape the illusion of seeming power and to rise from the nadir of seeming helplessness – to meet the halachic challenge of this generation.
The writer is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency ( She holds a PhD in rabbinic law and is the first female Rabbinical Court advocate to sit on the Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.