"Rachel," an ultra-Orthodox woman in her early 40s, has spent nearly a decade trying to get a divorce. She first filed for dissolution of marriage in 1998, after being physically and emotionally abused by her husband.
In 2004, the District Rabbinical Court rejected her plea. In 2005, she filed an appeal with the High Rabbinical Court and in 2006, eight years after filing for divorce, the High Rabbinical Court unanimously ordered the husband to grant her the divorce.
Rachel, with the assistance of the Center for Women’s Justice, then filed for damages in the Civil Court, stating that her status as an abandoned wife caused her "great shame, emotional anguish, pain and hardship," adding that after watching nine years of her life pass her by, all she wanted now was to "raise my children with a clear head and to start a new relationship."
Judge Greenberger emphasized in his ruling that the Family Court was not overstepping its authority, seeing how there was no attempt on Rachel's part to coerce her husband into granting the divorce; or to involve the Family Court in any matter pertaining to the dissolution of marriage per se. The suit, he said, was just about monetary compensation.
The ruling further stated – and this is the decision’s distinguishing point – that the 2008 Rabbinical Court decision ordering the divorce will not be the reference date for stipulating damages.
Greenberger states that "when examining the merits of the wife’s claim for damages it is not appropriate to investigate whether or not the husband was obligated to grant the divorce, but rather if the husband refused to grant the divorce – if that refusal was justified; and whether it was foreseeable that such a refusal would cause harm.
"Thus even when the Rabbinical Court does not 'order' a husband to give his wife a divorce, the Family Court can still hold the husband liable for the harm that he causes to his wife by refusing to grant the divorce."
Greenberger's ruling opens up debate with certain legal scholars, who claim that damages should be awarded only in tandem with halachic guidelines, that are accepted by the Rabbinical Court and its judges.
Judge Greenberger also took issue with the wife’s attorney, Susan Weiss, who argued that the tort of negligence should be categorically applied if a year has passed from any woman's filing for divorce. Greenberger held that although in this case he had ruled that the husband was liable from such date, a decision on when damages are owed should be made on case-by-case basis.
While the general public and the legal community seem to have understood the great need to help women who are refused a divorce and the need to further legislation in the matter, we still have to convince the Rabbinical Court that it too, has a role to play in this regard.
And should the Rabbinical Court chose to "see no evil, hear no evil"; and to continue ignoring the plight of so many women, at the very least, it should step aside and refrain from challenging a divorce decree if a woman dares to file for the compensation she deserves, making room for the civil courts to do justice in these matters.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic advocate with the Center for Women’s Justice