Rabbinical court statistics on ‘agunot’ being disputed

Women’s rights groups insist rabbis are manipulating data to claim that there are more wives refusing to accept a religious divorce than there are husbands refusing to grant one.

A still from the film 'Gett,’ which examines Jewish divorce laws (photo credit: PR)
A still from the film 'Gett,’ which examines Jewish divorce laws
(photo credit: PR)
The Rabbinical Courts Administration and several women’s rights groups on Tuesday disputed the true implication of statistics released by the administrative body regarding divorce recalcitrance in the rabbinical courts.
The Rabbinical Courts Administration published statistics that seemingly demonstrated that over the last five years, more women have refused to accept a divorce than men have refused to grant one.
Women’s rights groups claimed however that there were several ways in which rabbinical courts unjustly determine a woman to be recalcitrant, along with similarly unjust reasons that men are sometimes not determined to be recalcitrant.
In some cases, even violence against women is not considered grounds to require a husband to give a divorce, such groups pointed out, and for these reasons, it was argued, the recalcitrance rate for women appears inflated compared to that of men.
According to the data released on Tuesday, some 56,000 couples got divorced from 2012 through 2016.
Of those, the rabbinical courts issued 3,566 rulings requiring the husband to grant a bill of divorce to his wife and 3,384 requiring the wife to accept the bill of divorce from her husband.
According to Jewish law, a divorce is only valid if a man willingly grants a divorce and a women willingly accepts it.
Should either refuse to divorce, the marriage cannot be terminated.
However, the rabbinical courts said that of those divorces, there were 809 cases in which one side was recalcitrant, 382 of which involved the husband refusing to grant a divorce and 427 where the wife refused one.
“One can see that divorce recalcitrance does not happen by just one gender, and the numbers of men who are refused a divorce is higher than the number of women,” said Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration.
“Every day in which a divorce is refused is one day too many and is not appropriate. Divorce recalcitrance should be condemned, it is severe and harmful, and while the recalcitrance continues the spouses need to be helped and saved,” he said. “The rabbinical courts are working day and night to find solutions and bring these unhappy cases to an end.”
Attorney Batya-Kehana Dror, director of the Mavoi Satum divorce rights group, pointed out however what she describes as a fundamental error in the way in which the rabbinical courts determine recalcitrance by a husband.
Kehana-Dror noted that the courts only consider a spouse to be recalcitrant after a rabbinical court has ruled that a divorce must be issued or accepted, but that it may take many years after a divorce suit is filed for the court to issue such a ruling.
She noted that in many cases, the rabbinical court will be attentive to a man’s request to try reconciliation, thereby delaying a decision requiring him to grant a divorce.
In addition, she argued out that the rabbinical courts treat men leniently and therefore often fail to issue rulings requiring him to give a divorce, thereby reducing the chance that he will refuse to grant the divorce and be considered recalcitrant.
In one egregious case Mavoi Satum dealt with of late, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court refused to require a husband, who had physically beaten his wife on three occasions, to grant her a divorce.
In that case, the rabbinical judges said that since he had beaten her simply because she asked for a divorce, and that it believed he would not repeat his behavior, her request could not be accepted.
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, chair of The Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar-Ilan University, also took exception to the manner in which the statistics were presented, and said that the raw data hides the true picture of the way in which the rabbinical courts treat women in divorce proceedings.
According to Halperin-Kaddari, there are frequent cases in which a woman files a suit for divorce in the civil courts – allowing it to rule on financial, custodial, and property matters – but in which the husband demands the matter be heard only by the rabbinical court.
She said that rabbinical courts frequently consider a woman in such circumstances to be recalcitrant if she refuses this demand, while men would rarely be in similar circumstances, since it is highly unusual for them to insist on proceedings in the civil courts.
“This data is not only misleading, it is also camouflaging the real problem, which is divorce-abuse again women,” said Halperin-Kaddari.
“A survey conducted three years ago on the initiative of the Rackman Center shows the alarming extent of this phenomenon of divorce abuse, namely the extortion of women by men who threaten to withhold their divorce. Every third woman divorcing in Israel finds herself under such threat.”