In an unprecedented ruling, Israel's Supreme Rabbinical Court determined last week that a spouse who committed adultery over an extended period of time should receive less than half of the couple’s joint property after their divorce.
The division of assets will be calculated from when the infidelity began, rather than the date the divorce was filed.
The verdict was handed down on Thursday in the case of a couple that had been married for 20 years. The husband had filed for divorce in 2013, but her infidelity began a decade earlier.
Normally, in cases of adultery, the other spouse is entitled to half of the property accrued during his or her marriage. However, after the Jerusalem-based religious appellate court found that the woman in question had been cheating on her husband since 2002, it decided that she would receive a lower share of any property acquired after May 1 of that year, when the affair began.
The court stressed that it arrived at its decision based on civil law, not halakha (traditional religious law).
In the divorce suit, originally submitted to the Rehovot Rabbinical Court, the husband said he had not known that his wife was cheating on him until 2013, whereupon he immediately filed for divorce. He presented evidence of his wife’s infidelity, and she did not deny it.
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The Rehovot court ruled that the couple’s relationship had effectively ended in 2002, when the wife began her affair. Consequently, it said, she was not entitled to any share of her husband's property acquired after that date. The woman appealed the decision to the highest authority in such cases, the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
The latter did not uphold the lower court’s ruling in its entirety, but neither did it fully grant the wife’s appeal. It sided with her in deciding that she should receive some share of the property acquired between 2002 and 2013. But it also took the side of the husband, by ruling that she deserved less than the full 50 percent to which she would normally be entitled by law. Instead, it granted her only 20 percent of the shared property – along with 50 percent of that accrued prior to May 1, 2002.
In explaining its verdict, the Supreme Rabbinical Court cited civil law – specifically, a clause governing financial relations between divorcing spouses that refers to a “weakened partnership” in which, due to special circumstances, the couple’s property is not equally apportioned.
In the case at hand, the religious appellate court said, the woman effectively duped her husband into a partnership while having an affair without his knowledge, since if he had known about her infidelity, he would not have agreed to continue that partnership. Because the two remained married, it still existed. But because the relationship existed due to her deception of her husband, it qualified as a “weakened partnership” as defined by civil law. Therefore, the judges said, the wife is not entitled to the usual 50 percent share of their property.
The Supreme Rabbinical Court insisted that its ruling constitutes neither a value judgment nor a punishment for the woman’s adultery, and does not contradict a decision by Israel's Supreme Court to the effect that “a person cannot be punished for his role in dismantling the family unit by depriving him of his rights to joint property.”
Moreover, the judges explained, the Supreme Court itself has ruled that prolonged adultery creates a “weakened partnership,” even when the other spouse knows what is going on – and that is surely even more true when that partner is ignorant of such a situation, they wrote.