‘Precedent-setting’ case allows woman to divorce in independent rabbinical court

“This was a battle against the monopoly of the state courts, a monopoly which they abuse and in so doing harm women, the rights of women and do injury to the equal status of women.”

Divorce (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
A woman who married outside of the chief rabbinate and sought to avoid any future contact with the institution or the state’s rabbinical courts has won her battle and succeeded in obtaining her bill of divorce through a private Orthodox court.
Nathalie Lastreger, 48, had been through a divorce in the state’s rabbinical courts after her first marriage ended and decided that the experience was so painful that she never wanted to be subject to the authority of the rabbinical courts again.
When she married her second husband 11 years ago she therefore insisted that they marry under the auspices of a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi, and that should they ever divorce they do so under the auspices of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
The chief rabbinate has exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce and the Interior Ministry will not register anyone as married if they married in the country outside of the auspices of the chief rabbinate.
Lastreger thought that by avoiding the official state institutions when getting married, she could avoid dealing with the rabbinical courts in the event that she would get divorced again.
Unfortunately, Lastreger and her second husband did end up wishing to terminate their marriage, but her husband decided he wanted to conduct the process in the state’s rabbinical courts, something which Lastreger had vowed not to do.
When she refused to attend hearings set by the rabbinical court, she was issued first with a ban on leaving the country and in July this year with an arrest warrant for refusing a divorce, as the court claimed.
Lastreger said, however, that she was prepared to go to prison, and critically, would appeal to the High Court of Justice against her incarceration on the grounds that since she married outside of the chief rabbinate, the state’s rabbinical courts did not have jurisdiction over her.
It seems that this threat persuaded the Jerusalem rabbinical court hearing Lastreger case to back away from the arrest warrant it had issued against her out, of the concern that the High Court would rule against it and create a precedent in which its legal standing over a citizen in a matter of marriage or divorce would not be recognized.
To avoid this precedent, the court itself issued an unprecedented ruling and in September this year, it permitted Lastreger and her husband to conduct the divorce in a private haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbinical court.
There are at least two independent rabbinical courts that conduct divorces that are subsequently approved by the state rabbinical courts: the court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, one of the most senior rabbis in the haredi world, and that of the Edah Haredit communal organization, created before the establishment of the state.
Both of these courts have an unofficial, unwritten arrangement with the state rabbinical courts, that divorces conducted through them are subsequently recognized and recorded by the state rabbinical courts system.
But she also notes that she was not demanding that the divorce be done in a non-Orthodox court, just not in a state court, which she accuses of abusing their monopoly.
The divorce suit was subsequently filed in one of the independent haredi rabbinical courts, and two weeks ago the divorce was completed without complication.
“This wasn’t a war against Judaism or against the rabbis,” Lastreger told The Jerusalem Post. “This was a battle against the monopoly of the state courts, a monopoly which they abuse and in so doing harm women, the rights of women and do injury to the equal status of women.”
Lastreger, who works as a communal leader in the Conservative movement and is enrolled in its rabbinical ordination program, says that she is committed to Jewish law and always insisted on marrying, and divorcing, in a manner in keeping with Jewish law.
“Monopolies are not good, not in business and not in religious services. Hillel and Shamai disputed many things in the times of the Talmud. There were always disputes in Jewish law, but there was never a monopoly until the State of Israel was established.
“The main reason for my anger is that they’re doing these injustices in the name of God, but God deserves more credit than is allowed for Him by what these people do.”
Lastreger says that she doesn’t support a complete revocation of religious marriage and divorce, but says that the law should be reformed so that someone choosing to marry under the auspices of one particular denomination should be able to divorce with the same denomination, while also supporting civil marriage and divorce for those who wish to choose it.
Attorney Batya Kehana-Dror, Lastreger’s legal representative and director of the Mavoi Satum women’s divorce rights group, believes the case will have historic importance and implications for others in a similar situation, as well as those marrying with an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, but outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate.
“Our intention is to break the rabbinate’s monopoly,” says Kehana-Dror starkly. “We’re talking about an institution that is unreliable, since it is a monopoly and its main activity is to preserve its own power instead of finding ways to solve serious problems for women.
Kehana-Dror says that she now intends to establish new, independent rabbinical courts and direct couples to divorce under their auspices.
Should such divorces be challenged, petitions will be filed to the High Court of Justice, citing Lastrenger’s case as a precedent in which independent, Orthodox rabbinical courts can be used to arrange Jewish divorces in the State of Israel.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, also highlighted the importance of Lastrenger’s case.
“From here on in, it will be hard to turn the wheel backwards. If this is the guiding principle, then other independent rabbinical courts are entitled to the same status – specifically the rabbinical court of the Masorti Movement, which functions completely in accordance with Jewish law.”