In Historic Ruling, Israeli Rabbinical Court Jails Father for Abetting Son’s Refusal of Divorce

Court calls case 'one of the harshest cases' of recalcitrant husbands it has ever had to deal with.

Eyal Warshavsky

In an unprecedented move, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court ordered a man jailed for 30 days for abetting his son’s 11-year refusal to grant his daughter-in-law a divorce, calling the case “one of the harshest cases of igun [‘chained’ to a recalcitrant husband] the rabbinical court system has ever had to deal with.”

The head of the rabbinical court panel, Rabbi Shlomo Shatsman, suspended the punishment for 10 days to give the father a chance to appeal.

The recalcitrant American ultra-Orthodox husband, his wife and two children were visiting Israel in 2005 when the wife suffered a serious stroke. Her husband then decided to abandon her and the children and went into hiding, protected by his family and the ultra-Orthodox community to which he belongs. He has ignored several rabbinic court rulings ordering him to divorce his wife.

His father is a wealthy man and a major donor to the Erlau Hasidic court, which is based in Jerusalem. During a recent visit to Israel, he and his wife were summoned to the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court to testify as to the reason for their son’s disappearance and respond to allegations that they are playing a major role in hiding him and in his refusal to pay his wife alimony. The parents were also slapped with a restraining order forbidding them to leave the country, and their passports were confiscated to pressure them to appear before the rabbinical court.

After a series of hearings and investigations, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, in a 45-page ruling, determined that the father “is a central and active factor behind the chaining of his daughter-in-law through his son’s recalcitrance,” and ordered him imprisoned for 30 days, pending an appeal, should he pursue one, before the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Rabbinical Courts director Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi said, “The decision by the court – like others in the recent past – expresses the deep and unequivocal commitment of the rabbinical courts to assist agunot [women denied divorces] and to prevent recalcitrance The court has made worthy use of the halakhic [Jewish legal] and [secular] legal tools at its disposal to expose the help the parents are giving to the recalcitrant husband.”

Prof. Aviad Hacohen, who has represented the woman together with the Yad L’isha organization, said the ruling was “a true revolution. Dayan Shatsman deserves praise for his courage, determination, and willingness to overturn every stone for a woman refused a divorce.”

Attorney Osnat Sharon, the director of Yad L'isha, welcomed the ruling. "We hope that this step will bring to the quick release of the woman and bring her out of the darkness in which she has been for many years. We don’t desire punishment for the father-in-law, but an ending to the woman's suffering."

"This ruling has a direct impact on a number of cases we are presently working on, in which it is also clear that without the support of the surroundings that envelope the recalcitrant husband, the woman would have been set free long ago."

The office of attorney Eliad Shraga, who represented the husband's parents, said that "recalcitrance is an unacceptable phenomenon that must be eradicated. At the same time, it seems that the court floundered and decided to fix a wrong with a wrong, choosing to mistreat the elderly father rather than punish the recalcitrant son.

"This is a severe and unusual case in which the court is forcibly holding for over six months a foreign national, who carries an American passport, as a hostage in a judicial procedure that he isn’t part of. The elderly father, who is in a very difficult medical condition, has been turned into a bargaining chip and a tool for exerting pressure on his son who lives in the U.S.

"The court hasn’t denied this aim and clearly admitted to it. In order to achieve this goal, the court qualified all measures and conducted the discussion in a biased and impartial manner, without allowing the father a fair legal proceeding and while hurling personal insults at him and his representatives. This is in complete contrast to all rules of fundamental justice and morality according to which "the son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity," it said.