Israeli Rabbinical Court Overturns Decision to Release Woman From Abusive Marriage

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Young Haredi Jews in the city of Tel Hashomer in May.
Young Haredi Jews in the city of Tel Hashomer in May.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court reversed its decision last week to release a woman who had been waiting 18 years to receive a religious divorce from an abusive marriage following pressure from prominent figures in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Canceling a rabbinical court decision is a highly irregular step, which sparked furor in the Haredi community raising questions about its impact on halakhic jurisprudence, meaning traditional Jewish law.

Last week the pressure proved successful, and the court reversed its decision and ruled that the woman, who claims that during their marriage the husband abused her sexually, emotionally, and economically, is still married to her husband.

However, some of the judges who criticized the original ruling releasing the wife now wonder whether it is legally possible to bind her again once a ruling has been issued stating that she is free.

A source at the Rabbinical Courts Administration told Haaretz that the new ruling is in effect and the woman is forbidden to others and still considered married.

The couple, a woman from Israel and a man from the U.K., married in 2003 and lived in London. Shortly after the wedding the woman reported that her husband is “a cruel and abusive man.”

She told the court that her husband forcibly rapes her regularly, reduced her food rations to the point where she had to ask a neighbor for food and cut her off from her family and acquaintances.

Shortly thereafter she wished to end the marriage, but found out that she was pregnant and feared such a step. Eight and a half months later, the two arrived in Israel, and she mustered the courage to ask for a divorce.

The husband refused and waged a campaign against her, in the course of which he spread defamatory street posters (“peshkvils”) against her and her family.

Later on the husband returned to London, where he married another woman with whom he has children.

Following his refusal to divorce his wife, despite her willingness to waive any claim against him, the rabbinical court in London ruled that he and his family should be ostracized. In addition, the community was forbidden to admit his children into schools or circumcise his sons.

Civil and criminal proceedings launched against him in London reached the U.K.’s Supreme Court, but these too failed to persuade the husband to divorce his wife.

In 2010 the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court ruled that the man must be coerced into granting his wife the get (religious divorce), but he persisted in his refusal.

The woman appealed again to the rabbinical court, asking it to order the consecration (“kiddushin”) annulled. The woman based her appeal on the fact that the marriage was a “false bargain” (“mekah ta’ut” in Hebrew, literally an “erroneous deal”) as the very morning after the wedding she discovered that the man suffers from mental health problems, and had she known of these in advance she would not have married him.

Last August the rabbinical judges Yehuda Yair Ben Menachem, Daniel Edry and Ephraim Hacohen ruled that the woman’s marriage is null and void as it constitutes a “false bargain.”

The judges based their ruling on the opinion of an expert psychologist presented by the woman, stating that her husband had suffered from mental health problems prior to the wedding.

The appeal included an affidavit by a social worker at the Mayanei HaYeshua hospital in Bnei Brak, where the woman gave birth, stating that she had been abused.

The social worker added that “during her hospitalization the husband came to visit her once but made no contact with her, nor showed any interest in the baby,” stating that the husband had taken the woman’s ID card and refused to give it back, which hindered her discharge from the hospital.

Among other things the former rabbinical judges claimed that the “false bargain” argument is based on speculation alone and not proof. Additionally, they argued that the opinion was commissioned by the wife rather than the court, and that the psychologist in question never even met the man prior to writing his opinion.

“There is no choice but to rule that the marriage of this woman, so prodigiously abused by her husband during their short life as a married couple, is null and void under the law of mekah ta’ut,” wrote Ben Menachem, requesting to add two more judges to his ruling.

In a letter published by the former rabbinical judges after the court reversed its decision they wrote that “a psychological opinion based on unproven surmising cannot be the basis for any halakhic verdict, certainly not in grave matters such as releasing a woman by annulling a consecration. Furthermore, no document was presented attesting that the husband ever suffered from a mental disorder.”

The former clerical judges added that “this permit has no basis and is void. The ruling is wrong and sets a grave and dangerous precedent for future generations.”

The letter is signed, among others, by rabbis Nachum Sheinin, Moshe Ochanuna, Binyamin Be’eri, Gedalyahu Axelrod, Shmuel Gortler, Nachum Fruver and others. Both leaders of the Lithuanian Haredi community Rabbi Gershon Edelstein and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky joined the former officials’ protest and signed the letter opposing the ruling.

The rabbinical court said in response that “from the data before the dayanim [rabbinical court judges] as well as the opinions of a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist presented to the court as to the husband’s mental state, the court believed the consecration should be annulled, this after the court deliberated on the matter for months in all seriousness and gravity, and with the ruling joined by two of the most senior dayanim to serve in the rabbinical court system.

But since later on doubt was cast upon the data and facts presented to the court, the court reversed the permit in question.”

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