Israel's High Court Invokes Medieval Punishment for Husbands Who Refuse Jewish Ritual Divorce

Majority rules that religious courts can levy sanctions created by 12th century religious leader, including shunning and ostracizing, against a man who won't grant his wife a divorce.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Women holding signs to protest on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands will not grant them a get in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017.
Women holding signs to protest on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands will not grant them a get in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Israel's High Court of Justice on Tuesday approved levying communal and religious punishments, known as Rabbeinu Tam sanctions, against a man who refuses to divorce his wife.

In Judaism, a man must give his wife a religious bill of divorce, known as a get, to make the separation official.

The decision was made following an appeal that two get refusers had filed against the recommendation of religious courts to ostracize them.

The court voted 5-2 that the religious courts did not exceed their authority when they publicly called on the community to distance themselves from the get refusers, not to trade or pray with them, and not to "give them any honors" until they set their wives free. This practice, which dates back to medieval times, has been implemented in dozens of cases involving get refusers in Israel and abroad. It is named for Rabbeinu Tam, one of the greatest religious jurists and commentators, who lived in 12th century France.

The two appellants in the case, Oded Gez and an unnamed husband, both fled Israel and have refused to give their wives gets for years. Such women are known as Agunot, or chained wives. The court even approved shaming against Gez, a former physicist who taught at Tel Aviv University.

A panel of religious high court judges, headed by Chief Rabbi David Lau, ruled in January 16 that because Gez ignored an order to grant his wife a divorce as well as many other decisions, "the Rabbeinu Tam sanctions should be used." Such sanctions include not making any financial transactions with him, not hosting or feeding him, not giving him any honors, not asking him how he is, not paying him a visit if he is sick, not allowing him to say the Mourner's Kaddish, not seating him into synagogue and certainly not calling him to the Torah reading until he gives the get.

Lau also let his wife publicize Gez's name and photograph to ramp up the pressure. Consequently, Gez fled Israel but was later captured in Belgium, where he is being held while Israel tries to extradite him.

A minority opinion was held by Supreme Court President Miriam Naor and Justice Yoram Danziger. The two believed that despite their disgust with the behavior of the recalcitrant husbands, as long the court does not have specific legal authority to levy such sanctions, they are not an acceptable punishment.

The majority opinion, backed by Neal Hendel, Yitzchak Amir, Uri Shoham, Esther Hayut and Elyakim Rubenstein, the court is eligible to adopt the Rabbeinu Tam sanctions although there are no legal sanctions, as long as it is solely making a recommendation. The justices were accepting the position of the attorney general that rabbinic courts are not authorized to initiate sanctions not elucidated by law to enforce a get order. Still, they argued that the Rabbeinu Tam sanctions, are not sanctions per se and thus permissible as a recommendation in certain circumstances.

Rubenstein wrote for the majority that the courts cannot oppose the goal of the Rabbeinu Tam sanctions to help a woman being denied the possibility to "fulfill herself, find a new relationship and to give birth," especially someone who might become too old to have a child. He noted that shaming is problematic on social networks when they are done based solely on rumors and wrongly hurt someone's reputation. In this case, however, the facts have been made clear.

The rabbinic courts director, Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, welcomed the decision. He said that the High Court had "backed the religious courts in its determined and uncompromising struggle against get refusers in the search for a way to rescue agunot."

The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, whose lawyers represented Gez's estranged wife, also welcomed the decision. "The High Court decision recognizes a critically important tool that can help extract many women from being Agunot, especially when the get refuser flees abroad and there is no way of imprisoning him."

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