In Rare Move, Israeli Rabbis Free Woman Whose Husband Refused to Grant Her Divorce

Husband fled the country after being ostracized in the orthodox community. Rabbis find technical loophole and void marriage as 'one of the witnesses to the marriage was not an observant Jew'

Illustration: The High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem
Tali Mayer

In a highly unusual move, a rabbinical court has annulled the marriage of a man who for years refused to divorce his wife, leaving her free to remarry.

Monday’s ruling by the Haifa Rabbinical Court was based on its determination that one of the witnesses to the marriage was not an observant Jew. This is a justification for annulment that rabbinical courts very rarely use.

In 2016, the Rabbinical High Court formally declared Oded Guez a sarvan get, meaning someone who refuses to grant his wife a divorce despite being ordered by a rabbinical court to do so. It also ordered that he be ostracized — a ruling that obligates Orthodox Jews not to speak with him, employ him or give him any honors. This decision resulted in Guez being fired from his job at Bar-Ilan University.

To make the ostracism effective, the court allowed Guez’s name and photograph to be published. Tens of thousands of people shared his picture on social media, and the case was widely talked about. Nevertheless, Guez continued refusing to divorce his wife.

Instead, he fled the country on a forged passport, going to first to Cyprus, then Ukraine, England and Belgium. In July 2016, he was arrested in Antwerp on suspicion of using a fake passport and a false identity. Belgium is processing an extradition request by Israel.

In the meantime, the Haifa Rabbinical Court heard new evidence about the witnesses at the couple’s wedding and then decided to void the marriage. That will allow Guez’s ex-wife, whose name has not been made public, free to remarry.

The annulment means the woman’s status reverts to that of a single woman who never married. This allows her to marry even a man who is prohibited under Jewish religious law, or halakha, from marrying a divorcee.

“This case shows that when the rabbis want, they find a halakhic way” to free women whose husbands refuse to divorce them, said Batya Kahana-Dror, director of the Mavoi Satum organization, which helps such women. Thus there’s “no reason” to keep them trapped in a marriage “for years,” she added.

“There are solutions, and the court knows how to apply them when that suits its interests,” she continued. “Unfortunately, that same court recently heard a similar case, but it didn’t see fit to disqualify a pedophile who served a sentence as a witness and use this as justification for annulling the marriage. ... We must hope this ruling will set a precedent for all Israeli rabbinical courts.”

Rabbi David Malka, director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration, said the ruling “once again proves that the rabbinical court uses every means at its disposal” and “leaves no stone unturned” in its efforts to free women whose husbands have refused their divorce requests.