Son of Jerusalem Rabbinic Court Head Remarries - Without a Get

In the wedding photograph you can see the bride under the wedding canopy, holding a wreath of blood-red roses. The groom is sipping from the goblet of wine, and the guests, who appear to be ultra-Orthodox, are watching the goings-on, with disappointed looks on their faces. But someone is missing from the picture of the wedding ceremony of the rabbi's son, Hagay Batzri, and Nehama Welkoff, which was held about two weeks ago in the United States: Luna, the groom's first wife, who has not received a get (religious divorce decree).

"This is a genuine case of bigamy," says Rabbi Yigal Krispin, the bureau chief of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, speaking for the chief rabbi. "According to Jewish law, in the event of a permit to marry a second wife, the wife must be given an unconditional get. Krispin said such permits are mostly given in cases where the woman has been unable to receive a get, due to her medical or emotional condition. "Rabbi Amar is opposed to any permit to marry a second wife, except in rare cases. According to the laws of the State of Israel, a permit to marry a second wife in a case like this would not have been accepted," says Krispin.

The case in question may have occurred far from here, in Los Angeles, but the involvement of rabbinical figures and judges from here makes it relevant to Israel. The groom's father, Ezra Batzri, is the av beit din (president) of the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court, on whose rulings numerous women depend. Hagay's brother, Rabbi Moshe Batzri, who has submitted his candidacy to the selection committee for dayanim (religious court judges) and who expects to be appointed a dayan in the near future, performed the ceremony.

Jurists and representatives of organizations active in the effort to eliminate aginut (the phenomenon of women who have been denied divorce) contend that the permit was issued a little too easily, because of Batzri's family lineage. Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University, feels that inherent to the possibility of granting a husband the permit for a second marriage is the basic notion of inequality by the beit din (religious court) in its attitude toward men and women. Even more disturbing, she says, is that an unconditional get was not given to the wife, and that she is now sentenced to be a mesurevet get (a woman who is refused a divorce by her husband).

The support of figures in the Israeli rabbinic establishment, some quietly and some openly, for the second-wife marriage permit without the granting of a get to the first wife - against Jewish law - hints at the forgiving nature with which rabbis and dayanim in Israel relate to refusal to grant a get and the blackmailing of husbands.

In fact, as dayanim go, Rabbi Batzri is considered sensitive when it comes to redressing the suffering of women. Halperin-Kaddari asks, how can he be a party to such a terrible injustice, when the matter concerns his own family?

An ugly turn

Luna and Hagay Batzri were married in 1988 and have a 15-year-old son. Luna, who comes from a national religious family from Jerusalem, met Hagay during her army service and the two decided to marry. A few years earlier, Hagay, the son of Rabbi Batzri, had removed his skullcap and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. When she met him, Luna recalls, he had already begun to work his way back to religion.

The couple settled in Los Angeles and became ultra-Orthodox. Hagay, who was ordained as a rabbi, opened a synagogue in the Jerusalemite Sephardi style, and attracted a small community. Luna ran the synagogue's afternoon-enrichment "Sunday school."

The marriage didn't work, and in 2003 the couple decided to divorce. They agreed on the conditions of the divorce and the division of property, and arranged to cooperate on the Passover program they had prepared for the synagogue community. However, Luna says that after Passover things took an ugly turn. Her husband dismissed her from the Sunday school and sold their home without her knowledge. Subsequently he also closed the synagogue.

In May 2004, Luna filed for divorce in civil court, and was awarded child support. Four months ago, the couple received a civil divorce (which enabled Hagay to remarry, without committing any violation of American civil law), but the property claim has not yet been settled.

From this point, the sequence of events leading to the husband's second marriage was short. In October 2004, he applied to a beit din in Los Angeles, seeking a get and financial damages. In December 2004 he stopped paying child support, was fined by the civil court, and sentenced to community service. In the course of two months, October and November 2004, Luna received three summonses to appear before the beit din. According to Jewish law, if a party to a legal case does not appear for a hearing three times, he can be declared a sarvan, one who has refused to accept the court's authority, and a verdict can then be issued in his abstentia.

No jurisdiction

In the case of Luna, the declaration of her sarvan status seemed tendentious. The third and final summons set a hearing date of November 18, 2004. At the same time, emissaries of the court were sent to her, imploring her to come to the beit din and to transfer her claim from the civil court to the beit din. She replied that the property settlement had not yet ended, and that she would come to the bet din to receive the get only after the civil suit she had filed was settled.

In the United States, Luna says, batei din are considered private, and have no practical ability to enforce a party to a dispute to award assets or child support. "I asked the dayanim if they could protect me, in terms of the rights entitled to me by law," she says.

On November 8, she even sent a letter to the av beit din, Rabbi Abraham Union, in which she reiterated her promise to come to the beit din once the civil suit was over, to discuss the matter of the get. The letter reached the addressee on November 10, but the dayanim had already sent the husband a "writ of refusal" the day before, in which the beit din declared the wife to have refused to accept the get.

At the end of November, Luna suddenly received two summonses from another beit din in Los Angeles, one that is headed by Rabbi Samuel Ohana. She explains that it is a Sephardi beit din, in which it is easier to receive a permit to marry a second wife, because it is not subject to the ostracism regulation against polygyny enacted by Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1028 C.E.). This applies only to Ashkenazi communities, and so absolving Hagay Batzri from having to obtain the "consent of 100 rabbis" to approve a second marriage. Luna replied, in writing, that the beit din was not recognized in Israel and therefore had no jurisdiction to rule on the get.

Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, the director general of the rabbinical court system in Israel, confirms that Rabbi Ohana received authorization to serve as a dayan only two months ago. In effect, the marriage between Hagay and Luna Batzri was dissolved on behalf of the beit din by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Zaken, who is not even a dayan.

Three weeks ago, Luna learned from posters adorning the walls of synagogues in Los Angeles that her husband Hagay was about to marry a second wife. It is easy to imagine the shock felt by the 36-year-old religious woman, who is of sound body and mental state, at the sight of the posters. She says she happened to meet Rabbi Ben-Zaken, whom she knows, at a restaurant close to her home. "Who gave him permission to marry a second wife?" she asked him. "I did," said the rabbi.

In a telephone conversation that same week, which was recorded, Rabbi Ben-Zaken told her to come to the beit din to arrange her affairs still in dispute between her and her husband, and only then she would receive the get. "In Jerusalem," he told her, "they are standing behind the marriage permit." By this, she feels, he was hinting to her that rabbis of greater consequence and authority than he were behind the sanction of the second marriage.

Her feeling that figures in the rabbinical establishment in Israel were pulling strings grew stronger when emissaries from Israel began to arrive, and pressured her to agree to the husband's conditions for a get.

In conversation from the U.S., Rabbi Ben-Zaken said: "The get was deposited for her, but she must not go to a court of goyim [non-Jews]. She can take the get if she agrees to come for a religious ruling." In other words, he admits that it is a conditional get. Responding on behalf of Rabbi Ezra Batzri, the Israeli religious court system administration stated, "The marriage of the rabbi's son is a personal and private affair. It involves an adult individual who is independent of his father."

"This is bigamy," says Luna. "Since finding out about it, I have called rabbis, but they have evaded responsibility and made themselves scarce. I know rabbis in Israel knew about the story. Nobody told him he could not marry two women until he gives me a get. I don't believe this is our religion and that these are our rabbis, who can do what they want in the name of religion. In my opinion, it is a crime."