Rabbinical Courts Can't Discuss Child Support Without Parents' Consent, Israel's Top Court Rules

Supreme Court says both parents must agree to allow a rabbinical court to address the issue during divorce proceedings in what a senior legal official calls a 'dramatic' ruling

A case is heard in the Supreme Court, August 2019.
Emil Salman

A rabbinical court has no authority to discuss child support during divorce proceedings unless both parents agree, the Supreme Court ruled on Sunday.

A senior legal official termed the ruling “dramatic,” saying it would affect many divorce cases. In theory, the source said, it means that every divorce involving children could require a separate proceeding in civil court if the parents neither reach an agreement on their own nor agree to let the rabbinical court decide.

If that happens, he added, the parent being sued for child support will presumably insist on finishing that proceeding before granting the divorce.

The case involved a couple who married in 2002 and had two children. The husband filed for divorce in a rabbinical court and asked that court to also decide custody arrangements, child support and the division of joint property. The rabbinical court decided it had jurisdiction over all three issues.

Meanwhile, the woman had filed suit on all three issues in the Tel Aviv Family Court.

The father argued in that the rabbinical court was authorized to discuss all these issues, and the family court agreed regarding two of the three – custody and joint property. However, it said the rabbinical court had no authority to discuss child support.

Both sides appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling. The husband then appealed to the Supreme Court.

But that court rejected his appeal and charged him 10,000 shekels ($2,800) in court costs.

According to law, the rabbinical court has “sole jurisdiction over any issue connected to a divorce suit, including alimony and child support for the wife and children.” But over the years, various court rulings have interpreted this law in ways that widen the civil courts’ jurisdiction.

In particular, the so-called Shragai ruling, issued roughly half a century ago, stated that if a parent includes the issue of child support in the divorce suit, then the rabbinical court has authority to discuss it. But it’s also possible for the child himself to sue for child support via a guardian, it said, and in that case, the rabbinical court has no jurisdiction.

In Sunday’s ruling, Justices Menachem Mazuz and George Karra, with Neal Hendel dissenting, argued that the case in question is also one where the rabbinical court has no jurisdiction.

Usually, if a rabbinical court has already begun discussing child support, the civil courts won’t intervene. But Mazuz said this rule applies only if both parents agreed to let the rabbinical court conduct this discussion.

The Shragai ruling, he added, “reflects the important social worldview of giving priority to the consideration of the child’s welfare during divorce proceedings,” and that principle is still in force.