Legislators to check thorny parts of rabbinical court bill

Knesset Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson expressed his approval on Sunday after the government decided to postpone for comprehensive discussion a revote over a bill that would authorize the rabbinical courts to deal with financial disputes, including those unrelated to divorce. The bill, initiated by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila, was approved last week by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The only minister to oppose the bill was Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who argued that the initiative changed the status-quo in the relationship between religious and secular. After the bill was approved, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon demanded that the matter be brought before the full cabinet for a revote. The vote was scheduled for Sunday, but was postponed at the last minute, apparently to give the initiators time to make changes in the draft before bringing it to the cabinet. Ben-Sasson, who will preside over the deliberations in his committee should the proposed legislation pass a first reading in the plenum, told The Jerusalem Post that the bill raised serious questions that needed to be considered carefully. There are two problematic elements in the bill, he said. The first is that a couple which has drawn up a financial agreement will be able to include a provision stating that any disputes about the agreement after the divorce has been granted must be heard by a rabbinical court, on condition that both partners agree to it. According to current law, based on judicial ruling, once the divorce has gone through, any future dispute between the divorced couple becomes a standard civil dispute no longer related to the divorce procedure. Therefore, the rabbinical court has no jurisdiction over it, since it is empowered to deal only with matters of personal status. Critics of the bill are concerned that husbands will force their wives to agree to this provision as a condition for agreeing to divorce. Men can blackmail women because without a divorce, a married woman is prohibited from bearing children to any other man, and such a child is considered a mamzer, or bastard. There is no such sanction against a married man who has children with another woman. However, it is the other key element in the bill that creates a "revolution," continued Ben-Sasson. According to it, any two people who have a dispute regarding a financial matter may, if they both agree, and if at least one is Jewish, bring the matter to a rabbinical court, which will adjudicate in accordance with halachic law. Until now, rabbinical courts have only been allowed to adjudicate on matters related to personal status. The most they could do was rule on issues such as property division and custody of children, but only if these subjects were part and parcel of the divorce settlement itself. The bill approved last week establishes two parallel judicial systems regarding civil matters, using two separate law codes: one based on halachic law and the other on secular (common) law. In this situation, halachic law will be on an equal footing with secular law.