Rabbinic court blocks civil court intervention in aguna cases

Feminist advocacy groups: This has set women's legal rights in divorce cases back by decades.

aguna 88 (photo credit: )
aguna 88
(photo credit: )
A recent decision by the Supreme Rabbinic Court has set back women's legal rights in divorce cases by decades, claim feminist advocacy groups. However, a rabbinic court legal adviser says the decision is not new, but based on ancient Jewish texts and a long tradition that cannot be contested. Last month, the supreme rabbinic court ruled that it was unlawful for a woman in the middle of divorce proceedings in a rabbinic court to appeal to a civil court to speed up the divorce's conclusion. In the decision, Rabbi Hagai Izirer, Rabbi Menahem Hashai and Rabbi Zion Algrably ruled that if the civil court intervened, the writ of divorce (get) that the husband issued as a result would be null and void. The rabbis, quoting talmudic and other early rabbinic literature, said that civil courts were considered "a gentile entity," even if the judges were Jewish, and were therefore disqualified from coercing the husband in any way to give a get. The most common form of coercion is monetary torts. The civil court forces the husband to pay his wife damages for delaying the get. "A coerced get is permitted only by Jews," said the Supreme Rabbinic Court in its 26-page decision. "Coercion by gentiles, including civil courts, is forbidden because they do not represent the will of the rabbis." It added that "attorneys who deal in family law should be advised to weigh carefully their recommendations to clients to file damage claims in the family court for get-refusal. Such recommendations are tantamount to malpractice, and it is doubtful that attorneys could avoid such claims [of malpractice], even if they were to have their clients sign waivers to that effect." The court's ruling illustrates the tension between religion and state and the ongoing power struggle for jurisdiction between secular and religious courts. All Jewish couples in the country must marry and divorce according to Jewish law. Rabbinic courts oversee the divorce process, though some aspects, such as child custody and monetary matters, can be settled in special civil family courts. According to Jewish law, a Jewish woman may not remarry until her husband agrees to give her a writ of divorce. Only rabbinical courts can determine whether a get is kosher or not. Some women, known as agunot or "chained" women, have been held captive by their intransigent husbands - sometimes out of spite and often in an attempt to secure a more favorable divorce settlement for themselves. In response, women's organizations such as the Center for Women's Justice, an advocacy group that helps agunot, have initiated a legal innovation in which the civil courts are asked to force the husband to pay damages for delaying the get. Attorney Susan Weiss, founder and director of the center, said she had begun asking the civil court for torts about eight years ago. "Due to the negligence of the rabbinic courts, divorce cases drag on for years without a settlement," said Weiss. "In the meantime, women suffer. Getting the civil courts involved often forces the husband to cave in and give a get. "In response, the rabbinic courts, who are interested in maintaining their jurisdictional hold, have begun threatening women," she went on. "The rabbis tell the women that the get will be disqualified if they dare to go to a civil court. Attorneys representing these women are accused of malpractice by the rabbinical court. It is a scandal." She asserted that "if a man intentionally abuses his religious right to withhold a get from his wife, he causes her a civil wrong. He is intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He is infringing on his wife's life, liberties, rights and freedoms. That's why wives have the right to sue recalcitrant husbands for damages." However, Shimon Ya'acobi, legal advisor to the rabbinic courts, said in response that the rabbis' decision was not issued out of a desire to maintain control, but as an intellectually honest legal opinion. "Women's rights groups have an agenda," said Ya'acobi. "They are trying to undermine the entire rabbinic hegemony and open the way for civil divorces." Ya'acobi predicted that the Supreme Court would not get involved. "This is a purely religious matter fully within the jurisdiction of the rabbinic courts. The Supreme Court cannot come along and say that a get is kosher after the rabbinic court has already determined that it is not kosher."