Editorial

Extortion Under the Rabbinate’s Aegis

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

The president of Israel’s rabbinical courts, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, issued an unprecedented order Tuesday: not to bury a woman because her son has for 15 years refused to give his wife a divorce. “When all other options were exhausted, we had to inform the burial society not to bury the mother until the son provides a kosher divorce,” Lau explained.

The problem of agunas, literally “chained women” — who are unable to obtain a Jewish divorce and thereforce cannot remarry — is serious, and an active, intensive effort must be made to solve it. Nevertheless, extortion cannot be one of the methods used to do so. Moreover, after the mother was buried, the son retracted his consent to the divorce in any case according to Lau’s office.

Delaying burial as a means of extortion is a violation of the deceased’s right to be buried, a right that derives from the right to human dignity. Even in Israel, where burials are usually conducted by religious organizations, the rabbinical court does not and must not have the right to use this as a means of extortion – not even to free a woman from the intolerable situation of being unable to get a divorce.

Both the problem of agunas and Rabbi Lau’s decision to hold on to the woman’s body and deny her a burial as a means of extortion are reminders of the need to end the Orthodox hegemony and the rabbinate’s control of personal-status issues in this country, including by passing legislation enshrining the right to civil marriage and divorce.

The relationship between religion and state in Israel requires a comprehensive overhaul. Israel is the only democratic country in the world that does not permit civil marriage in its territory. That is why so many Israelis cannot marry in their own country.

The introduction of civil marriage in Israel is vital not only for secular people who want to get married in a way that suits their worldview, but also for everyone whom the rabbinate refuses to marry – people whose Jewishness it doesn’t recognize or who lack the documentation to prove their Jewishness. Civil marriage is also necessary for members of the LGBT community and interfaith couples. The current situation deprives all these Israelis of the fundamental right to marry, and also the right to divorce.

The need to establish a system of civil marriage in Israel is relevant to the lives of Israelis across the political spectrum. And aside from Likud, Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties, all the other parties have in fact committed in some form to creating a civil alternative to marriage through the rabbinate. Civil marriage in Israel, along with ending the rabbinate’s monopoly on other issues of religion and state, must play a central role in the current election campaign. Israel must liberate itself from the rabbinate’s chains and thereby liberate its citizens.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.