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Women vs. the Rabbinical Courts

The dramatic and emotional special Knesset session in July 1986 aimed to educate the public regarding the issue and to urge members of Knesset to take a hand in ameliorating the plight of countless agunot (women whose husbands have either disappeared or refused to grant them a get, a bill of divorce, leaving them unable to remarry under Jewish law). In an unprecedented show of unity, all ten women Knesset Members signed the letter requesting Speaker Shlomo Hillel to permit the session to be held.

Heart-rending personal testimonies were offered by many women, one of whom had been waiting for a get for 23 years, another for 18. The women, many of whom referred to themselves as “prisoners of the rabbinical courts,” spoke bitterly of marrying off their grown children while they themselves remained agunot, or of their inability even to bear children because they had been kept waiting too long for a get.

All of the women, as well as representatives of the Organization for the Aid of Agunot, attested to the inefficiency of the current system and the callousness of rabbinic judges, who often tell women that the court has no solutions to offer them or urge wives to return to their husbands and “settle things between themselves.”

A panel of distinguished legal experts, including law professors and practicing attorneys, most of them observant Jews committed to working within the halachic framework, called on members of Knesset to enact legislation designed to reform the existing system and to appoint judges sympathetic to the needs of women.

The various speakers, including Dr. Ariel Rosen-Zvi, Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University, Professor Ze’ev Falk, a member of the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University, and Dr. Michael Corninaldi, an attorney, denounced the gross inefficiency of the current system, in which rabbinical judges handle extremely large case loads, and in which court proceedings and statistics on the number of cases processed are never properly recorded.

Na’amat attorney Sharon Shenhav, discussing how many women have become the victims of extortion or blackmail at the hands of their recalcitrant husbands, often condoned by the rabbinical courts, reported that in one of her recent cases, the husband demanded $10,000 as the price of the get. “When I told the court that this was an outrageous demand,” Shenhav said, “one of the judges suggested that the woman pay ‘only $5,000’.”

Speakers called for streamlining court procedures, ending the rabbinical courts’ monopoly on divorce rulings, and passing laws forcing recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives divorces, as well as separating alimony and child-support rulings from those of divorce.

Other recommendations, all feasible within the framework of halacha, included: the application of community pressure (such as the withholding of synagogue honors) to coerce a get; financial pressure (e.g., the husband could be required to pay his wife a stipulated amount each week until he agrees to give her a get); the intervention of the Bet Din (rabbinical court) to grant a special get even if the husband refuses to do so (there are precedents for such a practice); and imprisonment of the husband in cases where the couple have lived apart for a certain number of years and the husband has been given a warning period of one or two months to give his wife a get.

In response to criticisms of the present system, Rabbi Simcha Meron, former director of the Israeli rabbinical courts, accused the various speakers of “distorting the issue.” He said that while there was some need for bureaucratic reform, there are “no hokus pokus solutions” to the problems of agunot. Many in the audience walked out as Meron began to speak, and he was eventually booed off the podium.

Responding to Meron, Prof. Falk, a widely respected authority on marriage and divorce in Jewish law, said, “We’ve heard bitter complaints about this in the Knesset for years and years, and the answer always was: ‘the rabbis will deal with this’…. One of the Knesset’s tasks is to constantly correct itself, to look not only at the laws on the books, but at what is happening in the community at large.”