Married in Cyprus? See you in Rabbinical Court
Until recently, rabbinical courts didn’t recognize civil marriages at all, but now Netanya Rabbinical Court has determined, in a landmark decision: We have jurisdiction over all matters regarding marriage, like alimony and property – even if you didn’t marry through the rabbinate
Did you think that if you married in Cyprus you wouldn’t have to appear before a rabbinical court in order to divorce? You were wrong. And now there’s something new: You thought that if you married in Cyprus all property disputes between you and your spouse would be adjudicated in civil court? Wrong again. In a lengthy and reasoned decision, the Netanya Rabbinical Court ruled that rabbinical courts have jurisdiction over contested property and alimony cases even if a couple married in a civil ceremony.
Until recently, rabbinical courts refused to acknowledge civil marriages in any way. Since Israeli law grants exclusive jurisdiction in matters of divorce to rabbinical courts, even those who married in civil marriages were required to appear before rabbinical courts in order to divorce. There halakhic deliberations would center on the question of whether a halachically valid marriage existed and if the parties needed a religious divorce just to be on the safe side To the extent that the rabbinical court determined that a precautionary religious divorce was required, the rabbinical court arranged the get. And if it determined that no such divorce was necessary, it ruled that the parties were never married and that they were both single.
In 2003, the High Court of Justice asked the rabbinical court to clarify a decision that it had issued involving a civil marriage. Chief Justice Aharon Barak wanted to know if Jewish law recognized civil marriages in the first instance in order to justify its being able to dissolve such marriages, and if so what were the grounds for so doing. In a reasoned, ground-breaking decision, Rabbis Deichovsky, Sherman and Ben Shimon held that Jewish law acknowledges the legal standing of civil marriages between two Jews, claiming that there are halachic decisors who recognize the concept of “marriages of the children of Noah.”
In this manner the rabbis held that they had jurisdiction over the dissolution of civil marriages. Indeed, in the High Court of Justice decision known as “The Children of Noah,” Chief Justice Barak ruled that rabbinical courts have jurisdiction to dissolve civil marriages. However, in that same decision, Chief Justice Barak made it clear that any attempt to race to the rabbinical court house in order to have it adjudicate matters ancillary to the divorce-- such as property or alimony-- would not be considered in "good faith" since it is clear that rabbinical courts reject the property implications of civil marriages.
The judgment of the rabbis from Netanya ups the ante of Rabbi Deichovsky’s decision. Not only does the decision maintain that Jewish law recognizes “marriages of the children of Noah” as valid marriages, but it also states the Jewish law will recognize the entire package of obligations and rights arising from these marriages under the guiding principle of dina de-malchutah (“custom of the state”). Thus, the decision has paved the way for the determination, contrary to Barak’s position, that rabbinical courts also have jurisdiction over property matters that are in dispute between couples married in civil ceremonies.
Here’s the problem: On one hand, we should be pleased with any display of moderation on the part of rabbinical courts. We should be pleased when a rabbinical court acknowledges dina de-malchutah, the validity of the laws of the State of Israel and the case law established by the Supreme Court. This isn’t axiomatic. Thanks. On the other hand, the thought of creeping annexation of rabbinical court jurisdiction is somewhat troubling. And indeed, it’s all as clear as day: As long as it was convenient for the rabbinical courts, they asserted that civil marriages were of no standing or consequence. Now, as the number of couples seeking civil marriage has grown, the court is trying to expand its power base and to acquire jurisdiction for itself.
To the rabbinical court: Why don’t you let up on those who have decided on civil marriage? It’s inconceivable that in the name of the laws of the state - dina de-malchutah - you will force yourselves on citizens of Israel who have voted with their feet and done everything to avoid entering your doors. And, besides, who would want to litigate matters before judges who, when dealing with the question of whether a woman is entitled to alimony, will compare her to a hired worker because, as it is written, she is “a maidservant to serve him” or because of dina de-malchutah?
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic court pleader who works at The Center for Women’s Justice, tel. 02-5664390
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