Israel's 'Black Widows'

The prevailing view, held by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, is that a woman is presumed "fatal" after the death of two husbands.

Irit Rosenblum
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Irit Rosenblum

Yaron Harel was killed on January 17, 2012, in a motorcycle accident. Yaron, 35, a policeman from Nitzan, near Ashdod, was the second husband of Liat Harel, who lost her first husband in a car accident 11 years ago. Few people know that Liat's anguish will not end with the mourning of her second husband.

Liat Harel's story is indeed a double, if not triple, tragedy. She lost Amit, her first husband, when she was only 19. Later, she fell in love with Yaron Harel, and the two married, as the words of the traditional ceremony have it, according to the religion of Moses and Israel.

In the future, should Liat Harel decide to marry again, following the devastating loss of two husbands, she will be punished for her history by that same religion of Moses and Israel. According to Jewish law, Liat is "a fatal wife" (isha katlanit ), a type of "black widow." Marrying her is considered by the ancient sources to be potentially life threatening. This is because a woman who has been widowed twice is suspected of having killed her husbands, if not actively, then by bringing a curse or bad luck upon them. And since the curse could endanger any future husbands, a woman in this position is forbidden to marry a third time.

Talmudic sources disagree about whether a woman has to have lost two husbands or three to be considered "a fatal wife." Tractate Yevamot, 64 B, of the Babylonian Talmud, is dedicated to this debate. The prevailing view, held by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, is that a woman is presumed "fatal" after the death of two husbands. Note that if a man loses two wives, Jewish law does not declare him to be a "fatal husband": Neither his integrity nor his luck are questioned, nor will his right to wed again be a subject of debate.

To modern ears, halakhic explanations for this inequality may sound arcane, and only illustrate the gap between ancient and modern legal attitudes toward women and men. One halakhic rationale for the difference is the fact that a man is the breadwinner and his loss necessarily creates an economic problem, unlike a woman, who is not obligated to make a living, so losing her is of little material consequence.

It may sound surprising that this ancient Jewish law, which also appears in the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish Law, is still in force today in modern Israel, but stranger laws are alive and well in Israel's religious courts, which exercise complete control over family life.

Should Liat Harel or a woman in similar circumstances seek a marriage license from the Rabbinate, she may become the subject of a rabbinic investigation. The Rabbinate has the authority to summon her to a hearing, to interrogate her about the circumstances of her husbands' deaths, and to question witnesses about her relationships with her husbands. Ultimately, the Rabbinate has the authority to deny her the right to wed based on this ancient superstition.

Though in all likelihood, the "fatal wife" will be absolved of suspicions against her and will be allowed to wed again, the fact that the Rabbinate has the sole discretion to arbitrarily deny people such basic human rights is illogical and infuriating.

Exclusive religious jurisdiction over family life completely contradicts freedoms that are meant to be guaranteed to Israelis in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom. The public should understand the magnitude of the Orthodox religious monopoly over family life in Israel. Religious courts control not only marriage and divorce, but the status of children, economic rights, inheritance and a dizzying array of personal status issues, not just among Jews, but also for Christians, Muslims, the "religion-less" - indeed, for the entire population.

Women are the primary victims of religious jurisdiction over personal status, though they are frequently unaware of it. Many don't know, for example, that even Jews who marry abroad to avoid the Rabbinate must divorce in the Rabbinate, should they wish to end their marriage. Fewer know that non-Jews are bound by halakha in many instances, including paternity registration procedures.

Seen through the eyes of a woman who has been twice battered so cruelly by fate, one has a dramatic illustration of the implications of religious jurisdiction over family life. The case of Liat Harel (who was not a party to the writing of this op-ed ) illustrates a disturbing phenomenon. It is time to end the monopoly held by religion over family life and to allow civil alternatives for marriage in Israel. Liat Harel's story is only one reason why.

Irit Rosenblum, an attorney, is the founder and executive director of New Family Organization ( ).