Is the Rabbinical Court’s best good enough?

The Rabbinical Court must set itself free to set the agunot free.

THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the year that has passed since last International Aguna Day, there have been fresh developments in Israel’s treatment of men chaining their wives to unwanted marriages.
Two aguna cases – wives refused a Jewish divorce – outrageous in the extreme by international proportions, were handled by the Rabbinical Courts. In both exasperating cases, the Israeli Rabbinical Courts tried their best – albeit with very different results. Much is to be learned from the life’s saga of each of the suffering agunot.
As reported by Jeremy Sharon (“16-year aguna,” August 23, 2019), in an American case, with both civilly-divorced former spouses residing in the US, Chief Rabbi David Lau went above – and some would say, beyond – the court’s standard levying of sanctions against a get-refuser. In this case, the focus of the sanction seemed not to be the recalcitrant husband himself, but rather his deceased mother! This was done through the centuries-old framework of harchakot, established by Rabbeinu Tam in 12th century France.
These harchakot – social sanctions – are a method of removal of rights that society ordinarily confers upon an upstanding citizen. The rabbis cannot directly excommunicate a get-refuser for fear that it would amount to coercion, which invalidates the resulting get. Thinking out of the box, the rabbis can issue a ruling affecting the social circles in which the get-refuser moves.
Indirectly, it is the surrounding society which is instructed not to award services to the recalcitrant husband – not to host him, honor him in synagogue, do business with him nor any other assistance of which the rabbis can think.
In the American case of years-long get-refusal, Chief Rabbi David Lau commendably accepted a ruling of harchakot issued by a Diaspora Rabbinical Court. The ruling stated that the get-refuser shall not be assisted in the mitzvah of burying his deceased mother (who had been flown to Israel for burial) until he gives the get so ordered by the American Rabbinical Court. This was a refreshing demonstration of the Jewish law principle “A Rabbinical Court transmits to a Rabbinical Court” – thus solidifying the trust one court awards to the other’s rulings. This, in and of itself, is worthy of note.
Nevertheless, an ignominious result came about – apparently due to the pressure of time the body was held in limbo, coupled with the assumption that self-proclaimed representatives of the American get-refuser appearing before the High Rabbinical Court would be dependable. Unfortunately, the judge trusted those individuals’ money-backed guarantee that the get would be given forthwith. Hence the judge allowed the burial to take place. Nonetheless, no get was delivered. In fact, the get-refuser denied that he had sent representatives to the Israeli Rabbinical Court.
The Israeli Rabbinical Court suffered embarrassment due to its being duped and experienced the deep helplessness which Diaspora Rabbinical Courts suffer at the hands of get-refusing husbands. The aguna continues to live on in halakhic limbo as a husbandless married woman – on and on.
Separately, in the infamous case of get-refuser Oded Guez, heard by the Haifa Rabbinical Court, harchakot were levied as well. Extraordinary means were employed – for the first time in Jewish history an Israeli Rabbinical Court allowed public shaming through the use of social media. As was widely reported, Oded Guez subsequently defied a court order prohibiting him from leaving Israel by doing just that under a false identity. The directorate of the Rabbinical Courts embarked on an international manhunt, finally tracing him to Belgium. The Israeli government continued in great efforts by requesting his extradition. Finally, after four years of unproductive rulings, the Haifa Rabbinical Court retroactively annulled Guez’s marriage (as reported by Jeremy Sharon, “Haifa Rabbinical Court voids marriage in Guez divorce refusal case,” June 18, 2019). The former aguna was unchained, free to marry – which happily, she did. In early February, Guez reportedly returned to Israel under a false identity and was arrested upon entry on criminal charges.
In both cases the Rabbinical Courts relied on exceptional interpretations of Rabbeinu Tam’s harchakot. In both instances it was applauded by those who fight for aguna rights. Nevertheless, in each case, the levying of social sanctions – no matter how creative – ultimately proved to be ineffective. Nevertheless there is a difference of great import in the so-called end of each story. The Haifa Rabbinical Court took its halachic power into its own hands, removing the control that a husband can exert on the life of a woman by refusing to grant her a Jewish divorce. Although the court prohibited the publication of the ruling’s details, the fact is that the court freed the aguna from her chains – through halachic means.
The Rabbinical Court must learn from its own actions. Rabbis have the power to remove the grip of the husband over the wife’s personal status by various means – annulment due to technical failures in the marriage ceremony or deception; prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; conditional marriages and more. Levying sanctions and even incarceration do not suffice. The Rabbinical Court must set itself free to set the agunot free.
International Aguna Day falls yearly on the Fast of Esther – March 9, 2020.
The writer is the director of the Aguna and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency ( She holds a PhD in rabbinic law and is the first female Rabbinical Court advocate to sit on the Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.