'Problematic' divorce judges neutralized

On eve of International Aguna Day rabbinic court head admits need for improvement.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has effectively neutralized a "problematic" panel of rabbinic judges in Jerusalem headed by Issachar Dov Hager, as part of wider attempts to improve rabbinic divorce courts, Eliahu Ben-Dahan, the administrative head of the rabbinic court system, said on Sunday. Ben-Dahan, who talked to The Jerusalem Post ahead of International Agunot Day, which traditionally takes place on the Fast of Esther (which this year falls on Monday), said that he and Amar were planning additional steps aimed at improving the rabbinic divorce courts. The aim is to reduce the number of men and women whose recalcitrant spouses refuse to cooperate in the Jewish divorce ceremony. According to Halacha (Jewish law) both husband and wife must agree to a divorce. Until they do so neither is permitted to remarry. However, the restriction on women is more stringent for, according to Jewish law, if she bears children outside wedlock all of her offspring from the new partner are mamzerim, which means they are prohibited from ever getting married. Ben-Dahan said that there were about the same number of recalcitrant women refusing to agree to a get as there were recalcitrant men, but admitted that women suffered more according to Halacha as a result. Ben-Dahan refused to elaborate about precisely what Hager's panel had done to deserve punishment but said that its powers had been limited to issuing divorce decrees in cut-and-dried cases where husband and wife had agreed to divorce. "We took advantage of a situation in which Hager's panel was paralyzed by internal quarreling," said Ben-Dahan. "And we neutralized him." Hager was unavailable for comment. Ben-Dahan said there were several additional panels in Jerusalem that he called "problematic," but said that he hoped most of the problems in Jerusalem would be solved after four rabbinic judges in Jerusalem retire at the end of the year and are replaced by new ones. "None of our judges purposely delays the issuing of divorce certificates," said Ben-Dahan. "But there is some variance regarding how much a judge is willing to work to find a solution." Ben-Dahan said he and Amar were considering other improvements in the rabbinic divorce courts. One of them is the institution of a preliminary meeting between a rabbinic judge and the husband and wife seeking a divorce, to determine whether rapprochement is an option. Ben-Dahan said another purpose of the meeting would be to identify particularly difficult cases. These would be directed to panels that are more motivated to find creative solutions. The Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University and the International Coalition for Aguna Rights (ICAR) are organizing International Aguna Day. On Monday between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. at Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv, ICAR will display personal stories of women who have suffered under recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give a get. The displays also include newspaper clippings on the aguna issue, Bible verses and explanations of halachic solutions. One solution, suggested by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat in certain cases, is the annulling of the marriage by the rabbinic court. The Rackman Center, headed by Dr. Ruth Halperin Kadari, is organizing a petition calling to find solutions for agunot. Some of the suggestions include creating a legal situation that prevents either side from using the get as a bargaining chip for monetary issues or child custody, mandatory prenuptial agreements, making it unlawful to renegotiate a decision made by a civil family court, and appointing rabbinic judges who have a secular legal background and are more familiar with secular Israeli culture.