The push to expand the jurisdiction of Israel's rabbinical courts

Theocratic rejection of Israel's civil judiciary

The theocratic forces among Israel's political and religious leadership have been increasingly aggressive of late, pushing to expand the jurisdiction of Israel's rabbinical courts, at the expanse of Israel's civil courts. A key element of this theocratic outlook is the rejection of the legitimacy of Israel’s laws and civil judiciary.

Tears, source: WikipediaTears, source: Wikipedia

Only last month did Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef announce at a national rabbinic gathering that rabbis in Israel should warn the public that in civil disputes they ought to turn to rabbinic courts rather than to the state civil courts.

Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis have explicitly prohibited bringing legal disputes before arkaot (as gentile and Israeli civil courts are described in Haredi rabbinic literature). This is based upon their treating Israeli laws as “gentile laws” and worse. This is what the leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi community in the early years of the state, the Chazon Ish, held; similarly, former chief rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar wrote that coming to judgment before Israel's civil courts is prohibited and constitutes a desecration of the Divine Name.

Among the political initiatives to undermine the foundations of Israel's democracy and religious freedom, the Religious Services Ministry is in the process of establishing an international database of Jewish marriage and divorce, reflecting the rigidity of the present day State Rabbinate with the advances of technology. Whereas the religious texts of the past indicate that one could move to another community and reestablish one’s Jewish status legitimacy, this is an attempt to muster the purity of the Jewish people as a whole, creating a Mark of Cain that will never be cleansed from any individual’s database profile. Instead of the assumption that “all families are presumed to be kosher,” the new presumption will be that nobody who hasn’t been cleared by this database will be able to marry in the Jewish community, if the Rabbinate has anything to do with it. One can easily visualize the hardships this will present for members of the Jewish community in the Diaspora who seek to make Israel their home; similarly one may expect that fundamentalist Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora will turn to this central database before authorizing marriages even within the Diaspora.

An indication of the Rabbinate’s attempt to exert its authority over all Jews in the world is its claim to have jurisdiction over Jews who merely visit Israel as tourists, holding them hostage by force of Israeli law until they consent to the rabbinical courts’ orders regarding divorce. Just this month, the Tel Aviv Regional Rabbinical Court sentenced a Jewish-American tycoon to 30 days in prison for being the influence behind his son’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish writ of divorce. The court’s decision marks the first time a person has been arrested for someone else’s refusal to issue a get, or Jewish divorce. Even if we assume that the purpose is a noble one, namely: gaining wives freedom from recalcitrant husbands, the idea of Israeli rabbinic courts imprisoning and detaining Jews from around the world who are neither citizens nor residents of Israel, but only happen to visit the country, is highly troubling.

The statistics should be born in mind: in 2015 penal sanctions were only applied to 47 recalcitrant husbands, out of thousands of divorce suits, which dragged indefinitely because of the rabbinic courts’ reluctance to issue orders forcing divorce and limiting them to the very, very, very extreme instances.

Another troubling example of a political maneuver is a new law increasing the jurisdiction of Israel’s rabbinical courts, which passed the Knesset this Wednesday. Here again, the purpose is noble on the face of it: namely, applying pressure on recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives divorces. However, the problem, as MK Stern pointed when he abstained from supporting the bill, is that this legislative move, embraced by well-intentioned MKs, creates the misleading impression that the rabbinical courts are responsive and sensitive to the plights of agunot and women who are stuck without divorces. The statistics should be born in mind: in 2015 penal sanctions were only applied to 47 recalcitrant husbands, out of thousands of divorce suits, which dragged indefinitely because of the rabbinic courts’ reluctance to issue orders forcing divorce and limiting them to the very, very, very extreme instances.

In fact, Hiddush just recently covered a case, in which the Jerusalem rabbinical court refused to order a husband to divorce his wife, even though he used violence against her, for which he had been criminally convicted on three separate occasions. All too often, rabbinic courts satisfy themselves with paying lip service to the odious phenomenon of wife beating and feel that the case of a husband’s violence, which results in the wife’s filing a divorce suit, is understandable and tolerable, and halakhically(!) conclude that the wife should cede to her husband's demand that she remain in their marriage.

MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), himself an Orthodox Jew, abstained from the vote, saying that the law does not address the root of the problem. Those supporting the law “give a sort of backing to a destructive [religious] system that abuses women, and if you support this proposal, which may solve the problem of one woman, you are simultaneously burying hundreds of women denied a divorce, who are pleading at every moment that their husbands be jailed, and the rabbinical courts do not exercise the option.”

Ignoring this terrible reality, the new law allows the rabbinical courts to put religious sanctions on recalcitrant husbands sitting in jail, forcing them to wear prison uniforms instead of their own clothes and barring them from the special Torah study program in Israeli jails. The rabbinical courts may also deny them special kosher food with a “mehadrin” certification and force them to suffice with the regular kosher food option. For inmates in solitary confinement, the rabbinical courts are granted the authority to withhold writing or reading materials, apart from a prayer book, and to see to it that they are prevented from accessing any forms of communication.

MK Stern protested that the law would only help one or two women, for this only affects ultra-Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox men who are concerned with such religious restrictions, even assuming that the intransigent rabbinical courts bother to take action on behalf of women in abusive marriages.

We would have readily support this bill if we knew that it was accompanied by a genuine commitment of the rabbinical courts to render freedom to the many wives who are being blackmailed and tortured in seeking release from marriages that have not worked out. That is not the case, unfortunately, and therefore what Israel truly needs is to move away from a system that grants exclusive monopoly over marriage and divorce to the rigid rabbinical courts, and offers the public the free choice of civil marriage and divorce.

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