A Discriminatory and Dangerous Trick

The young woman walking toward the offices of Mavoi Satum, an organization that offers assistance to women whose husbands refuse to divorce them, was only 21, married for two years, and pregnant.

The young woman walking toward the offices of Mavoi Satum, an organization that offers assistance to women whose husbands refuse to divorce them, was only 21, married for two years, and pregnant. The daughter of a well-known right-wing spiritual leader, she grew up in a veteran settlement, was wed in an arranged marriage, and asked a rabbi before she decided to get divorced. Her husband was not mature enough for marriage, and was quick to anger. She was condemned to wait a few years for the divorce. One day, in the hallways of the rabbinic courts, her lawyer asked her why she had started the divorce process in the religious court. "My father would not let me do it any other way," she answered. "The civil courts are off-limits to us."

Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog was blind to the reality of women like this - who are typical of a growing number of people in Zionist ultra-Orthodox society who do not recognize civil courts - when he fielded his unsound proposal to expand the powers of the rabbinic courts. On a silver platter, this bill gives rabbinic judges the option to adjudicate any civil matter, from property and inheritance to labor laws. For people for whom Torah law is not something they deliberate over, this option is a religious imperative.

Therefore the tricky wording "agreement of the parties" that Herzog pulled out of his hat as a condition for giving such authority to the rabbinic court is very problematic, especially when it involves giving it the power, after a divorce has been granted, to rule on issues stemming from the divorce.

The dependence on "agreement" is an infuriating attempt to gloss things over. In an ideal world, everything should be conducted by consensus and dialogue. But in reality, when it comes to powers such as those of an employer over an employee, in religious and patriarchal societies in which the individual really has no free will, and in the case of a woman, when her father, husband or rabbi decide for her - "agreement" is a sorry leg to stand on.

Under this cloak of free will, this pretense of equality and forced agreement, a move was made, almost a grab, toward the establishment of autonomous judicial authorities based on Torah law. This dangerous bill, if it had passed, would have worsened women's status, already low in rabbinic courts. Meanwhile, following the public debate after the bill's presentation, Herzog backpeddled, and its discussion by the cabinet was postponed. The threat, however, is still there, because it is rooted in coalition agreements between Kadima and Shas, and Shas will not give up easily.

Zionist ultra-Orthodox women would be the main victims of this bill; women who even now are condemned to be extorted by their husbands. Who can ensure them that all aspects of the divorce will not be given by agreement to the rabbinic court after the divorce itself? The ultra-Orthodox community has an internal system to deal with men who refuse to give their wives a divorce, by means of threats, payments under the table and shunning. Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, of Mavoi Satum, says that in recent years more and more women among the Zionist ultra-Orthodox are being refused divorces.

That is not surprising in light of the increasing opposition to civil courts in this community. In an interview in last Shabbat's issue of Ma'ayan Hayeshua, an influential weekly pamphlet on the Torah portion, Ettie Meidad, identified with Honenu, an advocacy group for right-wing prisoners, said: "The root of our troubles is the court. And if we cooperate, we are giving it a retroactive stamp of approval, which contradicts the Torah."

The interview appeared in a pamphlet that emanates from the schools of thought of prominent national-religious rabbis such as Mordechai Eliyahu, Shlomo Aviner and Yaakov Ariel. It shows that Meidad's views are not only those of the moonstruck margins of society.

Meidad is a kind of superwoman: mother of nine, who finds the time to protest and even go to jail with her young children because she eschews the justice system. There is no doubt that she is a model for young girls, such as the high school students who recently refused to recognize the authority of the court. They did not understand that this atmosphere is already a boomerang against their sisters and friends, who cannot choose a hearing in a civil court, which will recognize their rights.

Why not have judicial pluralism? Why not let every sector of society adjudicate in keeping with its worldview? That was the question raised last week in a conference called by Kolech, a women's forum committed to Jewish Law and gender egalitarianism, at the Van Leer Institute, following the presentation of Herzog's bill. This is the answer: The state must protect those who do not have freedom of choice and who are inferior in Jewish law.