Labor Minister Appeals Bill 'Empowering' Rabbinical Courts

A Labor Party minister appealed to the cabinet yesterday against the Ministerial Legislation Committee's decision to approve a bill that would expand the authority of the rabbinical courts.

Unless overturned by the cabinet, the committee's decision technically obligates coalition members to back the bill in the Knesset.

The bill contains two elements. First, it enables rabbinical courts to hear civil cases if all parties to the dispute agree and at least one litigant is Jewish (or, if the litigant is a corporation, Jewish-owned).

Second, it allows a divorced couple who worked out their own financial settlement and had it approved by a rabbinical court to ask that court to resolve any subsequent financial disputes between them.

The bill was forwarded to the ministerial committee by Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) and minister for cabinet-Knesset liaison Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima).

However, Agricultural Minister Shalom Simchon (Labor) appealed its approval to the full cabinet, saying the bill was problematic in two respects.

First, he argued, it granted the rabbinical courts excessive power, and second, it essentially circumvented a 2006 High Court of Justice ruling that said rabbinical courts had no authority to serve as arbitrators in civil suits.

The rabbinical courts argued in response that the bill did not expand their power; it merely restores powers the High Court took away in its 2006 ruling.

Until that ruling, rabbinical courts had routinely served as arbitrators in civil cases when both sides consented. Moreover, claimed rabbinical courts director Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, the bill does not even fully restore these powers: It would give rabbinical courts less control over financial disputes between divorced couples than they previously had.

Nevertheless, the bill has many opponents. Professor Michael Corinaldi, an expert in family law, for instance, charged that it essentially creates two parallel legal systems, one religious and one secular.

Attorney Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement argued that not only would it greatly expand the rabbinical courts' involvement in civil affairs, but there was no way to guarantee that litigants had in fact consented freely.

"For instance, if an employer drags his worker into a decision on a financial matter before the rabbinical court, is the worker in a position in which he can refuse his employer? We are creating a system here that threatens small claimants," Kariv argued.

But Ikar, an organization representing women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, said the compromise version approved by the ministerial committee did at least minimize the harm to women in divorce proceedings.