The arbitrary, dangerous practices of Israel's rabbinical courts - opinion

Women need a safe and clear exit strategy from a broken marriage; whether abusive or not.

SHIRA ISAKOV (right) arrives earlier this week for a Beersheba court hearing of Aviad Moshe, who tried to murder her in Mitzpe Ramon a few months ago. (photo credit: FLASH90)
SHIRA ISAKOV (right) arrives earlier this week for a Beersheba court hearing of Aviad Moshe, who tried to murder her in Mitzpe Ramon a few months ago.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
 Yom Ha’aguna is marked on Taanit Esther. In Queen Esther’s days, the genocide of the Jews seemed inevitable, yet the actions of one woman and her guardian changed the course of history.
Today, the agonizing and often life-threatening plight of agunot and mesoravot get feels inescapable. In Shira Isakov’s highly publicized case, her spouse attempted to murder her and then decided, from jail, that he would deny her a get. It was only the efforts of the media and Mavoi Satum that forced the rabbinical court to pressure him to grant the get.
Liana Hazan was almost murdered by her husband months before Shira. Unlike Shira, before the attempted murder, Liana had been to the rabbinical court to attain her get. Enraged by her attempts to leave, her husband slashed her all over with a boxcutter. Against all odds, Liana survived. Her husband is now in jail and for the past six months has refused to give Liana a get. Since there is no public pressure, the rabbinical court is in no rush to force the issue. In fact, one judge keeps asking Liana if the only reason she wants to divorce her spouse is because he tried to murder her! These cases, as well as those of countless, faceless women highlight the arbitrary, incomprehensible and dangerous practices of the rabbinical courts. 
Successive governments have given the rabbinical court free rein over women’s lives; thousands of women and their families are affected by the often inexplicable and callous decisions handed down in these courts.
The Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law of 1953, and before it the status quo, determined that the state-run rabbinical courts have a monopoly over marriage and divorce. However, it cannot mean, as it does today, that the courts are not held to account. Traditionally, the interpretation of Halacha (Jewish Law) is a process where new understanding builds upon and deepens previous knowledge and judgment. Throughout the ages, rabbis have grappled to find solutions to the problem of aginut. Yet, in the 21st century, the state-run rabbinical courts believe that attempted murder is not reason enough to present a woman her get without her husband’s consent. We have created a lawless, stagnant and unsupervised system that upholds stringency for stringency’s sake on the back of the beatings and the attempted murders of women. 
Seventeen years ago, in the film, Mekudeshet, the rabbinical judge tells one of Mavoi Satum’s clients that the knife her then-husband had threatened her with was used by him “only to take advantage of her naivety,” whatever that means. Today, Liana’s case highlights that nothing has changed in their attitudes. 
THERE ARE rabbis in the system who are courageous and just, but they are silenced. 
In 2014, in a groundbreaking and detailed ruling, a bench of brave rabbinical judges led by Rav Uriel Lavi in Safed handed a get to X, another of Mavoi Satum’s clients. X was a young mother, who had been an aguna for seven years, following a motorcycle accident, which left her husband in a permanent vegetative state. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef condemned the decision. Unlike his father, the late Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was known to have annulled marriages to save agunot, Yitzhak Yosef moved to reverse the get. Mavoi Satum successfully appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the repeal.
A large proportion of rabbinical court judges in Israel seem to be divorced from moral reasoning. Not only are they not versed in the nuances of interpretation, which rabbis have been famous for throughout the generations, they renounce the basic tenets of justice and compassion which are so central to Jewish law. Someone should remind these venerable rabbis that halacha does not allow ignorance as a defense. Indulging the husbands and allowing them to use get refusal as a tool to continue to abuse their “wives” and families is deadly and dangerous. The onus is on them.
Women need a safe and clear exit strategy from a broken marriage; whether abusive or not. The Israeli government must provide that avenue as well as implement a system of checks and balances in the rabbinical courts. The Israeli government has more than doubled the budget of this seemingly untouchable institution from NIS 25 million in 2009 to NIS 58 million in 2019. The government condones and encourages the rabbinical courts’ actions, ignoring the dire consequences for women.
The question is why does the State of Israel allow it? Why is it a compliant partner? As shocked as everyone is by domestic violence, there is no protected escape route. Women in abusive relationships know that if they dare step out, they will not only be subjected to increasing abuse by their spouses, but they will be subjected to years of state-sanctioned, rabbinical abuse. 
The status quo should not mean that bullies can run wild; the status quo should not mean that legal decisions are based on cruel and twisted versions of halacha; the status quo should not mean that women return home to be stabbed or slashed by their husbands. It is about time that the Israeli government intervenes.
Just as the police have oversight bodies combating the misuse of power and secular judges have disciplinary tribunals, the Israeli government must ensure the oversight mechanisms in the rabbinical courts are implemented efficiently and effectively. In addition, a government-supervised task force should be set up to investigate and select the range of halachic solutions that can be implemented to protect every woman who chooses to divorce. 
As we approach our fourth election in two years, we should stop and think about our values as a society. We do not want to mourn the next victim of abuse. Let us demand justice and protection for women and elect a government that is willing to protect all its citizens. 
The writer is a co-founder of MavoiSatum, the organization at the forefront of the struggle for agunot and mesoravot get. The opinions expressed are her own.