Airing the Courts' Dirty Laundry

"The call to establish alternative courts is coming from a place of disappointment with and despair over the way the rabbinical courts function," said one speaker after another at a conference held earlier this week by Kolech, a religious feminist women's organization. The audience responded with applause and an academic discussion on a new court with a humane ideology that would free agunot (literally, chained women, who cannot obtain a get, or bill of divorce) and mesoravot get (women whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to grant them a get) soon turned into a protest calling for the establishment of extra-institutional courts. The participants hope that these courts will pave the way for a revolution in Israeli family law.

It was an impressive opening for the fifth Kolech conference, attended by hundreds of women and quite a few men. Unlike previous years, Kolech managed this year to enlist figures from outside the liberal, religious milieu - even opponents from the centrist religious Zionist stream who until now tended to give in to the ultra-Orthodox establishment and to its representatives in the rabbinical courts.

The appointment of judges, mostly from the strict school of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, to the rabbinical courts acted as a backdrop to the conference. Their appointment caused displeasure among religious Zionist rabbis, which was also reflected in a petition to the High Court of Justice submitted by the Tzohar organization of rabbis.

Seated on the dais were Prof. Menachem Schiffman, a legal scholar and author of the book, "Who's Afraid of Civil Marriage?," Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, the head of Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status and rabbinical court pleader Rivka Lubitz (all associated with the liberal-religious side); other prominent activists in the religious feminist arena, and Rabbi Israel Rosen, the head of the Tzomet Institute (which promotes integrating halakha and modern life), who in the past came out against Kolech.

A few hours later, in a mock divorce trial arranged by Mavoi Satum (an organization which helps agunot and mesoravot obtain gets), religious Zionist rabbis served as judges for an hour. The participants included Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, and Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, the head of the Ma'aleh Adumim Yeshiva, who is considered an important halakhic arbiter, together with Rabbi David Bigman, the head of Hakibbutz Hadati's (the religious kibbutz movement's) yeshiva in Ma'aleh Gilboa. The mere consent of the two rabbis to take part in a discussion that suggested halakhic solutions not used by the courts to free mesoravot get was considered a great achievement.

Rosen announced a move to set up a new and independent "social" court, adding that he distanced himself from the concept of "alternative courts." He says that, from a halakhic perspective, the idea had already been worked out and the initiative had received the blessing and consent of leading rabbis - among them, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Zephania Drori. Rosen also said that the judges in the courts would be rabbis ordained as dayanim (rabbinical court judges) from the religious Zionist movement, whom "Eli Yishai does not favor" and who "are graced with a contemporary worldview and a humane social agenda that takes into account the woman's suffering."

The new court will not issue divorces, but will mainly discuss financial disputes between a couple and the issue of alimony and child support. In addition, the court will rule in favor of issuing a divorce more often than the rabbinical courts and may impose economic sanctions on recalcitrant husbands. "All other matters can be resolved in family court," Rosen said. In effect, a couple appearing before the new court can bring a signed agreement to the rabbinical court for its approval.

Rosen said the new court will not become entangled with the problem of legal authority. Rather, its arbitration rulings can be enforced according to Israeli law. But in practice, this is where the problematic side of the new court lies: People may approach the court on a voluntary basis, but the question is, why would recalcitrant husbands want to approach it? Moreover, the court does not have the authority to enforce its rulings on essential matters such as child custody and visitation rights. According to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, of Tzohar, the call to establish alternative courts, which has been floating around for around a year, gained momentum after the judicial appointments incident. He said, the initiative grew out of "impossible rulings, both from a Torah perspective and a humanist perspective."

"In this court, a woman could ostensibly be on the panel," said Rosen but was careful to add: "But we want to lend it the appearance of an important court." This comment did not pass quietly. Rabbinical court pleader Rivka Lubitz, who is active in the Center for Women's Justice, responded to his remarks and predicted that the initiative would face a struggle with the rabbinical courts, which would not want to be a rubber stamp "and just issue a divorce."

She says the inclusion of women should not be accomplished quietly, but openly and in the light of day. "It is possible that the time has not yet come for women to be dayanot (female rabbinical court judges)," she said, "but it is inconceivable that women would not be part of the planning team for the alternative court."

"The reason this topic made headlines and that the criticism is so focused, is that women became educated and found a voice," added Lubitz. "Basically, the fact that Rabbi Rosen could get up and say that there is a need to set up alternative courts without him being stoned, is directly connected to our work. Every project to set up courts is based on our hard and unpleasant work, during which we were sullied with mud and mire. We will not consent to being overlooked."

Lubitz said her remarks should not be seen as the "feminine side of the story" or as another call to hear the distress of agunot and mesoravot get. "That's not the point," she says. "Women who are active in this area have learned the system and understand the courts in ways that others don't understand them. It took them years to acquire this understanding. No one can allow himself to give up this knowledge."

Lubitz called for the courts to hire dayanim "with knowledge and education beyond the page of Gemara." She added that "Torah knowledge is simply not enough when it comes to issuing a halakhic ruling in the case of a marriage-related dispute. Attorneys can tell of rulings issued that were not only illegible and incomprehensible but also illogical and impossible to implement in the real world, because they didn't correspond to the law."

Lubitz arranged an exhibit, "Dirty Laundry," in the foyer of the room where the Kolech conference was held. She hung up white shirts worn by dayanim on a laundry line and on each shirt printed scandalous rulings, which reflected their obtuseness to the suffering of the woman who was refused a get. She documented two rulings in the case of Rachel Avraham, who was refused a divorce for 17 years. In 2000, after Avraham received the longed-for get, the dayanim canceled it only to reinstate it six years later. And so, with the swipe of a pen, they decreed another six years of needless suffering.

Lubitz, who publishes critical articles on the fight against recalcitrant husbands on the NRG Web site, says that the exhibit was created in response to the question she is frequently asked: "Why are you airing your dirty laundry in public?"

"The urge to do so began even before I started writing," she says. "I thought rulings by dayanim who were immune to the suffering of women should be publicized. At first, I thought of hanging up the rulings themselves, and then I thought of the statement in the Gemara that a scholar with a taint found on his clothing deserves death. Hanging the shirts hints at the severity of the matter. With this, I want to say that the dayanim are tainted by the harsh rulings they choose to write."