High Court Won’t Annul Woman's Divorce From Comatose Husband

Court rules that the Rabbinical Court was unauthorized to rule on an appeal against the divorce.

The Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Attempts by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to annul a divorce were blocked Thursday by the High Court of Justice. The judges unanimously accepted the arguments of plaintiff H., a woman with a comatose husband who was granted a divorce three years ago by a rabbinical court in Safed.

The judges also ruled that the high rabbinical court headed by Yosef was unauthorized to deal with an appeal that was filed against the decision to grant the divorce. “It is unacceptable that a divorce given by a rabbinical court, equivalent to a ruling in a civil court, can be retroactively annulled,” wrote the justices, ending this affair.

The case involved a ground-breaking divorce ruling which raised a political and legal storm at the time. The rabbinical court in Safed, headed by Rabbi Uriel Lavi, determined, on the basis of medical opinion and visits to the hospital that the husband was permanently unconscious and could not freely give his consent to a divorce. They granted his wife a one-sided divorce, assuming that they were fulfilling what would have been the man’s wish.

Yosef expressed his opposition to this ruling on several occasions. Several months ago he convened an unprecedented panel of 11 rabbinical judges to discuss an appeal filed by one Reuven Cohen, who has no connection to the case or the family, in an attempt to overrule the previous decision. The woman filed a petition against Cohen’s appeal.

The High Court judges noted that the high rabbinical court had, without precedent, agreed to hear the arguments of an unrelated party. The deputy president of the court, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, noted that the woman had proceeded with her life, assuming that the affair was over. “What if she had married in the meantime and had a child. Would anyone have had the gall to call the child a bastard in that case?” wondered Rubinstein.

In his decision Rubinstein noted “the great and undisputed importance in finding halakhic solutions for abandoned or trapped women.” In a barbed hint aimed at Yosef, Rubinstein mentioned Yosef’s father as “one of the greatest of our generation, Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who did so much to help these women. I’m certain that this is the wish of every religious judge at any level.”

Rubinstein also wrote that it was time to end this affair. “This issue is difficult on a human and emotional level, and aside from the legal issue our heart goes out to the plaintiff who has suffered so much. First, when her marriage dissolved after her husband became a ‘vegetable’ and then over the years in which she sought to obtain a divorce, followed by trying to uphold it.”

The judge also claimed that Cohen was not a party to this affair and that his appeal should not be considered. “This should not constitute any offense towards the president of the rabbinical court,” he wrote.

The ruling indicated that this was a final one and that a temporary injunction in the matter should be made final. The injunction specifies that the rabbinical court cannot deal with an appeal against the earlier ruling made in Safed. “Let the plaintiff go in peace and carry on with her life.”

H. said in response to the ruling that “we should thank God who has brought an end to my suffering. This has been a very difficult period and I would like to thank Batya Kahane who walked with me hand-in-hand the whole way, believing that abandoned women should receive justice and not suffer. I thank everyone who supported us. This is the happiest day of my life.”

Attorney Batya Kahane-Dror, who represented the plaintiff on behalf of the Mavoi Satum (Dead End) organization, said in response to the ruling: “Blessed is He who releases trapped women. I’m happy we’ve reached this day, first of all for H. who has gained real freedom just before Passover. She can now carry on with her life. I’m also happy for Judaism and the rabbinical courts, with this ground-breaking development allowing the release of trapped women as a legitimate course of action.” She added that this was a precedent which could encourage other halakhic solutions for amending the world and furthering the rights of women.