State vs Religion Dramatic Ruling Curbs Rabbinic Court Powers

The High Court of Justice yesterday ruled that Rabbinic Courts have no authority to arbitrate in financial or other disputes for which the law does not authorize them.

The precedent-setting ruling may hit Rabbinic Courts like a bombshell and significantly curb their powers.

The ruling followed a petition submitted by Sima Amir, a Jerusalem divorcee, against the Supreme Rabbinic Court and her former husband regarding the violation of their divorce agreement.

"A state court is not authorized to serve as arbitrator unless explicitly authorized by the law," wrote Justice Ayala Procaccia, who issued the ruling with justices Mishael Cheshin and Salim Jubran.

The statement continued: "The Rabbinic Courts are inseparable from the Israeli judicial system and derive their power from the law of the state. The parties' agreement cannot lend power to the Rabbinic Court. It does not have the power or authority to rule as an arbitrator ... on a case that is not within its lawful authority."

The new ruling may have far-reaching implications regarding the Rabbinic Court's function. Rabbinic Courts rule on some 700 arbitration cases annually, not including disputes among couples.

The High Court also suggests that past arbitration rulings of Rabbinic Courts may be annulled retroactively.

"The issue regarding the extent of the Rabbinic Court's authority ... raises the question as to the legal validity of the Rabbinic Court rulings given over the years in arbitrations ... on the basis of the parties' agreement," the ruling stated.

The divorce agreement between Amir and her husband included a clause stipulating that should future differences arise, they could only resolve them in a Rabbinic Court. However, the High Court ruled that the issue of violating a divorce agreement did not pertain to marriage and divorce that the Rabbinic Court is authorized to rule on.

The Rabbinic Court ruled that this clause gives it authority to arbitrate the issue. However, the High Court annulled this decision as well, ruling that the clause could not be seen as an agreement for the Rabbinic Court's arbitration.

"One cannot conclude from the parties' consent to bring future problems to the Rabbinic Court that they accept the Rabbinic Court as arbitrator," the High Court said. "The couple believed erroneously that their agreement to go to the Rabbinic Court empowered it to judge as though it were a state court, not as an arbitrator."

The judges said that the Rabbinic Courts have been practicing a procedure which is not in keeping with the legal system's structure.

"The High Court's ruling is a bombshell," said Shimon Yaakobi, the Rabbinic Court's legal adviser. "It will cause chaos. It means that even when two people agree to bring their case to Rabbinic Court, the High Court says the Rabbinic Court is not authorized to deal with it. We are very surprised."

"I've been divorced for 14 years and my strength has run out," said Sima Amir, 55, who has been fighting her husband in court. The struggle began long before her divorce. The High Court's ruling annuls the Rabbinic Court's decisions in her case, because the rabbinic judges were not authorized to rule on the case.

The divorce agreement said Amir's husband was to pay the mortgage on her apartment and he didn't. "I was almost evacuated and couldn't pay the money. I took out a 30-year loan to pay it. When we divorced the debt was NIS 27,000 but over the years it grew to more than NIS 100,000. I kept going to the Rabbinic Court and getting an arrest order against him, and the Rabbinic Court kept releasing him. I had to clean people's houses to feed my children."

Amir's divorce agreement said if future disputes arose they could be resolved in Rabbinic Court. This is the clause that the High Court annulled yesterday.