Bill Would Make Divorce Facilitators Subject to Religious Law

Requirement that professionals employed by the rabbinical courts act in accordance with Jewish law could cause serious harm to women, secular people and even children.

A government bill to be discussed by the Knesset Constitution Committee next week would require social workers, psychologists, mediators and other professionals employed by the rabbinical courts to act in accordance with religious law in any work they do for these courts.

The bill would set up special professional assistance units in the rabbinical courts similar to those that exist in the family courts. The latter units consist of psychologists, social workers and other professionals who assist the courts by providing everything from psychological evaluations of litigants through mediation services to expert testimony.

Because the rabbinical courts hear all Jewish divorce cases and often deal with attendant issues like custody disputes as well, such professional assistance could be equally valuable to them.

But the requirement that professionals employed by the rabbinical courts act in accordance with Jewish law could cause serious harm to women, secular people and even children, opponents say. Thus both the social workers union and Bar-Ilan Universitys Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Womens Status are demanding that changes be made in the bill to prevent such harm.

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari of the Rackman Center stressed that in principle, she favors setting up the new units. But the proviso requiring their employees to uphold religious law will result in only religious men being employed in these assistance units, she charged. Its a surefire recipe for keeping professional women and nonreligious people out of the units.

In this situation, she added, decisions are liable to be based solely on religious considerations, which would trump professional considerations and the childrens welfare.

For instance, there have been cases in the past in which rabbinical courts awarded custody to a religious parent in preference to a nonreligious parent, even though the professionals deemed the nonreligious parent better qualified to care for the child. But in those cases, the professionals could at least express their views on what was best for the child freely. Under the proposed new rule, opponents fear, they might fear that submitting an opinion favoring the nonreligious parent could cost them their jobs.

The law creates an impossible contradiction for social workers, who according to the Social Work Law are obligated to their client that is, to the childs welfare, said Itzik Perry, who chairs the social workers union. If they are also legally bound by religious law, and religious law in a given case contradicts what they deem best for the child, then they will be breaking the law no matter what they do, he explained.

In addition, the bill would give the head of the rabbinical courts i.e., the chief rabbi the power to set the units working procedures. Opponents fear that could result in him vetoing the hiring of secular people or women.

The bill has already passed its first reading, and the committee is now preparing it for its second and third readings.