U.S. Jew Refused to Divorce Wife, So Israel Refused to Bury His Mother

Following Israel's Chief Rabbi decision, man agrees to accede to rabbinical court order to grant his wife a Jewish divorce requested a decade ago

Israel's Chief Rabbi David Lau, Israel, 2018.
Emil Salman

Israel's Chief Rabbi David Lau ordered on Tuesday not to bury a woman whose son had refused to grant his wife a get, or Jewish divorce, for the past 15 years.

Hours after the decision, the man said he will accede to a rabbinical court order to allow the religious divorce. Since the the two no longer live in the same country, an agreement was reached between the man's family and a representative of his wife that the former put up a bond pledging he will appear before a rabbinical court as soon as possible to grant the get.

A rabbinical court in the United States ordered the man - an American citizen - to grant his wife the divorce a decade ago, but he continued to refuse to do so, leaving his wife agunah, or "chained" and unable to remarry.

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A senior official in the Israeli Rabbinical Courts, which Lau oversees, told Haaretz that this was a precedent-setting case, and refusing to bury relatives of a recalcitrant husband is not customary.

Public figures and rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox community pressured Lau to reverse his decision, which is based on halakhah [Jewish law], the chief rabbi's associates said.

The recalcitrant husband decided not to attend his mother’s funeral in Israel, fearing he might be detained.

Five years ago, the man married another woman, after receiving a special rabbinical permission to do so, which was not recognized by the rabbinical courts.

A senior legal source told Haaretz that Rabbi Lau "went far in his decision, both in terms of Jewish and state law." The source said he had never come across such a case, and that Lau does not have the legal authority to order the mortuary who to bury, but "at most, can recommend."

In 2017, the Israeli High Court of Justice determined that a rabbinical court cannot deny the burial of a man who refused to grant his wife a divorce. "The conclusion from that case is that  there also cannot be denial of burial to a family member of a man who refused to grant his wife a divorce", said the source. 

In a letter sent by the religious court judges in the United States to Lau, they wrote that "the husband has ‘chained’ his wife for 15 years, and has already married another woman illegally and in violation of religious law. His children must be prevented from receiving Jewish burial until he divorces his wife."

The letter added the man's mother supported him in his choice to chain his wife, and thus is not entitled to any benefits dictated by the law.

"We have therefore decided, according to Jewish law, not to allow the mother's burial in Israel until her son divorces his wife according to Jewish law," the letter read.

In April, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court sentenced Meir Gorodetsky to 15 months in prison and seven months' probation, being the first sentence given by the court to a recalcitrant husband.

Prior to the court ruling, Gorodetsky was in prison for 18 years for refusing to grant his wife Tzviya a divorce and physically abused her.