For over four months, an injunction issued by the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court has barred Orit and Alona from meeting in the presence of their children. The official reason given by the court is that “such meetings confuse the children and cause them irreversible psychological harm.” Due to this injunction, which was requested by Alona’s husband in the context of their divorce case, the two women, who had planned a life together, have been forced to live apart.
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When MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) learned of this, she wrote to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni demanding the dismissal of the three rabbinical court judges who issued it – Rabbis Yisrael Yifrah, Meir Issachar Mazuz and Yosef Goldberg – due to what she termed their "homophobic" statements and decisions. Livni then complained to the judicial ombudsman, Eliezer Rivlin.
In a laconic decision issued last month, Rivlin said he has no authority to intervene in the rabbinical court’s considerations, and thus couldn’t overturn the injunction – especially since the women had already petitioned the High Court of Justice against the injunction, and in September, the High Court rejected the petition.
Nevertheless, Rivlin added, he is authorized to criticize the court’s treatment of litigants, and in this case, its statement about the harm the children would suffer if the women met in their presence was “premature and without any legal basis.” While judges sometimes have to express a preliminary opinion on cases, he wrote, in this case, “the statement was unacceptable.”
In its September ruling, the High Court did ask the rabbinical court to reconsider its injunction against the women even meeting in their children’s presence. But it said the petition against the injunction barring them from living together was premature, as the rabbinical court was still awaiting a social worker’s expert opinion on the likely impact their living together would have on the children.
The women’s attorney, Susan Weiss, criticized this decision, saying that had a court sought an expert opinion regarding the impact on the children of, say, a white woman having sex with a black man, “we would all say that’s a terrible decision that undermines human rights.” A person’s sexual orientation should similarly be none of the court’s business, she said.
“These are decisions that undermine a person’s right to maintain a relationship with his beloved, decisions that undermine their right to establish a family,” Weiss added. “I know of no such decisions regarding heterosexual couples.”
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of Bar-Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, said that while seeking a social worker’s opinion in divorce cases is standard practice, “the focus on the question of living together with another partner isn’t.”
After the High Court issued its ruling, the women asked the rabbinical court to reconsider its ban on their meeting, in line with the justices’ suggestion. However, it refused.
Meanwhile, the social worker finished preparing her opinion, which concluded that the children would suffer no harm if the women lived together. But at a hearing last week, the rabbinical court judges refused to accept it.
“I disagree with the expert,” one judge declared. “Every child undergoes a trauma with a divorce; the question is when it happens. And that’s all the more true in an unusual case like this.”
The judges also suggested that the expert – whom they themselves chose – reached the conclusion she did because she feared the media’s response.
“She didn’t check what she should have,” one charged. “I want an explanation as to why this isn’t harmful.”
In August, Rivlin upheld a complaint against that same bench of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court for refusing to accept testimony by women. In that case, he ordered the court to reconsider its position. He also upheld another complaint against Mazuz and Goldberg, over their having acquiesced to a request by outside parties that a woman be forced to meet with her husband as a condition of receiving her divorce.
Two years ago, Yifrah bowed out of the race for a seat on the Rabbinical Court of Appeals due to various complains against him. Nevertheless, these complaints didn’t prevent him from becoming president of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.
And despite these recurring instances of problematic behavior, Rivlin hasn’t recommended disciplinary action against any of the judges – a recommendation he is legally authorized to make.
Rivlin’s office said that he is barred by law from talking to the media about specific cases, but “as a rule, the ombudsman has no enforcement or disqualification powers. Decisions on justified complaints are sent to the authorized bodies for them to handle.”
The Rabbinical Courts Administration said that Jewish law opposes homosexual relations, and the judges’ comments “were aimed at hearing the litigants’ response to the possible damage to the children. And here’s the proof: The court ordered an investigation into the children’s welfare in this regard, and their decision was unanimously approved by the High Court.”