Israel's High Court Slams Attempt to Reverse Divorce Granted to Wife With Husband in Coma

Appeal deals with local rabbinical court's decision to grant divorce to woman whose husband has been in coma for years. 'Why engage with this appeal?' asks Supreme Court judge.

Demonstration outside the Supreme Court building in support of the woman, January 11, 2017.
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice extended on Wednesday the interim order preventing the Supreme Rabbinical Court from hearing an appeal of a 2014 ruling to grant a get, or Jewish religious divorce, to a woman whose husband is in a coma.

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has declared war on the 2014 precedent-setting decision by the Safed Rabbinical Court, and two months ago ordered the rabbinical court to hear an appeal of the original ruling in an attempt to overturn it. The session was supposed to take place in the near future.

The High Court said at Wednesday's hearing that it will hand down its ruling at a later date.

The decision from three years ago concerns a woman whose husband was severely injured in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and went into a coma from which he has not recovered. Jewish law requires both parties to consent to a divorce. But in 2014, the Safed Rabbinical Court, invoking a rare legal procedure known as a get zikui, decided that under the circumstances, were the husband able to voice his opinion, he would want to make it possible for his wife to remarry.

The Safed judges consulted Yosef before making their ruling and issued it despite his objections.

The ruling was met with widespread objections in ultra-Orthodox circles, and several months after the ruling, an individual uninvolved in the case filed an appeal with the Supreme Rabbinical Court, saying he was acting for public and halakhic motives. After a drawn-out discussion of the appeal, Yosef decided to accept the request and ordered the court to convene to hear it.

The woman in the case, who has lived for three years as a free and unmarried woman, petitioned the High Court to block the session called by Yosef to prevent her divorce from being invalidated. The High Court had originally ordered the Supreme Rabbinical Court not to meet on the matter until it held a hearing, and now has extended that order.

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein criticized Yosef's decision to accept the appeal at Wednesday's hearing, asking, "Why engage with this appeal? Heaven forbid, why?" He noted that the Safed ruling does not even set a mandatory precedent for other rabbinical courts. Dozens of women demonstrated outside the Supreme Court building in support of the woman.

Rubinstein also stressed that the High Court would only rule on the question of whether the petitioner had standing to appeal in the rabbinical court, and not on “legitimate” halakhic debate.

In a blow to Yosef, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit submitted a legal opinion supporting the woman to the High Court on Tuesday evening in preparation for the hearing.

Mendelblit wrote that “no legal basis exists to make things more difficult for the [woman], financially and emotionally, or to send her to conduct a proceeding that is not based on law in the Supreme Rabbinical Court.” He said that the petitioner, who was not a party to the original case, has no standing to file the appeal and the High Court should reject the appeal outright, without even holding a hearing on it.

The woman’s lawyer, Rephael Stub, praised Mendelblit’s stance for “stopping the illegal process led by Rabbi Yosef, who thinks the rabbinical courts are his private property and along the way tramples every law and regulation.”

The ruling has limited application for other women since the court explicitly stated that it does not apply to men who actively refuse to grant a divorce. It could, however, help women whose husbands are in an irreversible coma.