Rabbinic courts' authority set to expand

Critics slam bill as reminiscent of controversial Shari'a comments in UK.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation decided Monday to support a bill which would strengthen the authority of rabbinical courts over marital and divorce matters and upgrade their status as arbiters of monetary matters. The bill, backed by Wefare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) and Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima), awaits Knesset ratification. Expanding the jurisdiction of the rabbinic courts was part of the coalition agreement signed between Shas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is the president of the rabbinic courts, reached a compromise with women's groups regarding the jurisdiction of the religious courts after divorce. The Justice Ministry said the bill represented a change in the rabbinical courts' authority, by giving them rule over issues which have nothing to do with their original mission. Since the establishment of the state, laws concerning marriage and divorce have been based on halacha, with rabbinic courts serving as arbiters whose decisions must be enforced by civil courts. MKs Ophir Pines-Paz and Shelly Yacimovich slammed the new bill, saying it harms women's status. The two called for an emergency Labor session on the matter: "It is inconceivable that one of Labor's ministers would bring forward a bill which goes against the coalition agreement and violates the status-quo," they said. Herzog, said in response that the bill had the full support of women's groups, including Na'amat (The Movement for the Advancement of the Status of Women), for being a preventive measure against the exploitation of women going through a divorce. The bill states that the rabbinic courts will be given the power to adjudicate on monetary matters connected with the divorce process such as the division of assets, child support and alimony. However, after the giving of the writ of divorce [get] the rabbinic court will not have the power to continue to adjudicate unless both the husband and the wife agree. Presently, it is customary that when the rabbinic court begins adjudicating in the monetary aspects of a divorce case before the giving of the get by the husband, it continues after the giving of the get. Women perceive themselves to be at a serious disadvantage in the male-only, strictly Orthodox courts which hand down rulings in accordance with Jewish law. Women's rights advocates accuse the judges of partiality to the husband and being out of touch with secular society's norms. They also claim that the judges cooperate with the husband in using the giving of the get as a bargaining chip in negotiations with his wife. Receiving the get is a prerequisite for permitting the wife to remarry according to Jewish law. "This was a major gain for us, considering the circumstances," said Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar-Ilan University and an expert in family law. But Halperin-Kadari was very critical of the other part of the bill, which would give rabbinic courts full statutory powers to adjudicate in monetary matters when the two parties agreed. She said that minister Herzog misrepresented women's groups when he declared that they gave the bill "full support". Sources in the rabbinic court said that Amar faced staunch opposition to the compromise that was reached. Rabbinic judges were concerned that the get might be retroactively annulled if the wife were allowed to transfer adjudication of the divorce case to secular family courts after the giving of the get. "Let's say the woman gave a verbal promise to the husband that she would agree to go to a rabbinic court after the giving of the get," said the source. "But she later reneged on her promise. That get might be annulled retroactively since it was given based on the husband's mistaken understandings." "This bill is reminiscent of the statement made recently by the archbishop of Canterbury in Britain about the Shari'a," said Halperin-Kadari. She was comparing the bill's two-tiered system of secular and religious courts to the suggestion made by Dr. Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican Church, that the United Kingdom would have to accommodate limited use of Islamic Shari'a law by its Muslim citizens.