New Prenup Drafted by Orthodox Rabbis Takes Aim at Divorce Refusers

The new prenuptial agreement is the initiative of Tzohar, an organization of rabbis who aim to make Orthodoxy more palatable to secular Israelis.

"Marriage is not a prison": A religious couple walks by a demonstrator protesting Jewish religious divorce policy in Jerusalem.
Alex Levak

A group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel has drafted a first-of-its-kind prenuptial agreement that it recommends to all couples in the country before marrying.

The agreement, unveiled this week, is meant to avert the long-standing problem of husbands who refuse to grant their wives a religious divorce, or get, thus preventing them from remarrying.

Under the new agreement, drafted in collaboration with the Israel Bar Association, spouses who refuse to grant divorces will be required to pay hefty financial support to their husbands or wives until they do so. This is meant to discourage a dragging-out of the process.

The new prenuptial agreement is the initiative of Tzohar, an organization of rabbis who aim to make Orthodoxy more palatable to secular Israelis. Its 45 rabbis perform about 4,500 Orthodox weddings a year in Israel.

Jews in Israel can only be divorced in the rabbinical courts. Jewish law prevents the forcing of a spouse into a divorce, although in recent years the authorities have approved sanctions against recalcitrant husbands.

“The purpose of this agreement is to allow the couples to decide how things will proceed, rather than the courts, in the event that the marriage breaks up,” said Yakov Gaon, the vice president of Tzohar. He said it took six years to draft the new agreement, which went through 16 different versions.

Many Orthodox rabbis in the United States today refuse to marry couples who haven’t signed a prenuptial agreement, Gaon noted.

“I think many of them will be interested in adopting some of the guidelines we’ve set forth here,” he said. “There’s been a lot of interest in what we’ve done and a lot of support from rabbis in America.”

He noted, however, that a key difference between divorce among Jewish couples in Israel and elsewhere is that in Israel only rabbinical courts have jurisdiction over divorce, whereas overseas civil courts also do.

“The fact that Tzohar has come out with something like this is amazing,” said Susan Weiss, the founder and executive director of the Jerusalem-based Center for Women’s Justice, which advocates on behalf of Jewish women facing divorce problems in Israel.

“It’s their way of saying that what has been going on in the rabbinical courts has not been good. I see this as an act of civil disobedience, although a minor one.” Israel’s divorce rules are “stacked against the woman,” she said.

"You aren’t allowed to put any pressure on the man to divorce, and it has to be on his terms,” she added.

The Tzohar prenuptial agreement stipulates that after one spouse notifies the other of his or her desire to break up the marriage, the couple has 180 days to try to resolve their differences through counseling. If after this period they have not reconciled and one spouse refuses to grant the other a divorce, that spouse is required to pay the other 6,000 shekels ($1,505) a month or half his or her salary — the larger of the two — until the marriage is officially ended.

The agreement also states that any future controversy over the interpretation of its clauses will be settled by an arbitrator. A special clause allows the two sides to agree in advance that an arbitrator will rule on all financial matters in dispute once there is consensus on the divorce.

Although the agreement is groundbreaking in certain ways, said Weiss, “it is still not perfect.” It would have been preferable, she said, to authorize the family court, rather than an arbitrator, to resolve matters in dispute and thereby allow for the right of appeal.

“If a client came to me,” said Weiss, who also works as a family lawyer, “I’d probably recommend a different type of prenuptial agreement. But if the choice is between this and nothing, I’d tell them to sign this.”