In Exceptional Ruling, Rabbinical Court Fines Recalcitrant Husband's Father

'It appears that his actions stem from vengeance and from a hardened heart, drunk with power and pride. Let us be clear: The defendant is the real master of chains for this woman,' the judges wrote

File photo: A rabbinical court in Jerusalem, 2009.
Tess Scheflan

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court issued an unprecedented verdict Thursday against the father of a husband who refused to grant his wife a divorce.

The court also imposed heavy fines on the father, whose son refused to give his wife a get, a Jewish ritual divorce. the court filed legal expenses on the father's lawyers personally, in an exceptional move.

Unlike other areas of the law, marriage and divorce in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the religious courts of the community to which the spouses belong. Under Orthodox Jewish law, implemented in Israel in the areas of personal status, divorce requires the consent of both husband and wife, which enables either side to thwart a divorce. A woman whose husband refuses to divorce her, or grant her a get, is called an aguna, meaning 'chained,' and she is unable to remarry.

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Spouses who refuse to grant a get run the risk of being sentenced to prison. The shortest period served by a defendant before consenting to a divorce was one day. The longest period recorded was about 14 years, which is being served by a man who remains in jail to this day for his refusal. No women have been jailed over their refusal.

This story involves an ultra-Orthodox couple, U.S. resident and parents to two children, whose tale has made headlines in the past few years. In 2005, during a visit to Israel, the wife suffered a severe stroke and, due to her severe medical condition, the husband decided to abandon her and the children. He hasn't been heard of since, hidden by his family and the ultra-Orthodox community to which he belongs. The rulings that required him to grant his wife a get have proven futile as well.

The husband's parents live in the U.S. The father is a wealthy tycoon, a major contributor to the Jerusalem Haredi community, and for this reason the husband has been protected over the years by the community in Israel and the United States.

During a visit to Israel by the husband's parents, they were summoned to appear at the Tel Aviv court in order to clarify with them the reason for his disappearance, as well as to respond to testimonies heard by the court about their central role in their son's disappearance and in his evasion of alimony payments to his wife.

During the parents' stay in Israel, an order was issued against them forbidding them to leave the country and their passports were confiscated in order to pressure them to report and testify before the court. Since then, many discussions have been held in the Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv, the Rabbinical High Court and the High Court of Justice, while at this time the father of the get refuser was still in Israel.

The court even sentenced the father to 30 days in prison, but none of this helped, and the woman has still not received a divorce.

On Thursday, following the lengthy deliberations in the rabbinical court, the judges, Rabbi Shlomo Stessman, Rabbi Eyal Yosef and Rabbi Ido Shachar, decided on an unprecedented verdict against the father. "After a long and complex procedure, we reached the conclusion that the defendant continues to stand behind chaining his daughter'-in-law and that there is no substance to his claims that he acted to persuade his son to grant a get," the judges wrote in the verdict.

"It is difficult to determine the clear and precise rational motive of the defendant's cruel conduct, but it appears that his actions stem from vengeance that is intensifying as the procedure drags on and as he is delayed in his leaving the country, from a hardened heart, drunk with power and pride, for 'the poor useth entreaties; but the rich answereth impudently,'" the judges wrote.

As a result, the judges imposed a daily fine of 5,000 shekels (1,300 dollars) starting from September 2 until the day the plaintiff receives her divorce. In addition, the judges ruled that "if her chaining does not end in the near future, we will consider appointing a debt collector for real estate property owned by the defendant and which we have sequestered." The judges also imposed the 50,000 shekel (13,000 dollars) court fees on the father.

The rabbinical judges didn't stop at that, and also imposed court fees on the father's representatives, the rabbinical pleader Moshe Mittelman and avocate Yael Nagar, personal court expenses of 10,000 shekels (2,600 dollars) each.

The decision is supposed to be reviewed by the Supreme Court president.

"We were convinced during the proceeding beyond any doubt that after the defendant actively worked to ensure his daughter-in-law remained aguna, which was proven to us, the defendant did not do anything to remove his bride from her situation. His claims that he tried to convince his son to divorce her are false."

"The new evidence brought before us are nothing but a hoax, literally. Let us be clear: The defendant is the real master of chains for this woman and he has done everything in his power to perpetuate her situation. "

Regarding the legal expenses personally imposed on the attorneys, the judges said that they "conducted during the proceedings in an inappropriate manner. They were wild during the hearings, spoke with audacity and lashed out at the court, as can be seen in the dozens of pages of the protocols, and in the regular submission of requests written in a manner that prove contempt for the Court."

Rabbinical Pleader Moshe Mittelman said in response: "I do not usually refer to proceedings being conducted in the court."

The father's family said in response that "unfortunately, it appears that the rabbinical court has decided to continue holding the elderly and ill father as a hostage in the process of his son's divorce, even after he was recently hospitalized in mortal danger, held on life support for weeks. The father expressed his repugnance with his son's refusal to divorce, and even presented to the court many unequivocal evidence to this effect, such as the testimony of Israel Prize laureate Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman, according to which the father has no control over his rebellious son, who in any case left the Hassidic fold and does not follow his path. No evidence against him was presented, and the court even sought to infringe upon his basic constitutional rights to representation by imposing unreasonable personal expenses for deterrence. We shall certainly undermine this wrong decision to the High Rabbinical Court, and we have no doubt that this decision will be revoked soon. "

A source familiar with the father told Haaretz that "the son doesn't listen to the father's requests. This is a boy who maintains almost no contact with his family. He is willing to grant his wife a get only in the U.S. since he believes that's the only way he'll be able to get visitation rights."

Prof. Aviad Hacohen, who represents the woman together with Attorney Osnat Sharon of the Yad L'Isha organization, said: "Everyone admits that after so many years of suffering it is time for a get to be given to the woman for her to be set free from the incarceration with which she is burdened. This verdict, which makes her father-in-law a partner in her chaining, puts a mark of disgrace on all those involved in making her an aguna woman. The rabbinical court has taken another important step in the ceaseless struggle to stop this disgraceful phenomenon, which is usually done in the name of god but not for the sake of god."