In a lawsuit filed on her behalf in 2002 with the Rabbinic Court, the wife, Hannah (not her real name), cited her husband’s extreme physical abuse and abandonment as the reason she sought a divorce.
The husband would punch her, slam her head against the wall and the furniture, and throw objects at her. In addition, he cursed and swore at her and the children. He moved out of the marital bed in 1999 and moved out of their home in 2002.
A 2003 Rabbinic Court ruling “recommended” rather than “mandated” the giving of the get (religious divorce). It claimed that Hannah had failed to conclusively prove her husband’s abusive behavior. Still, because she felt repulsed by her husband, it would be a mitzvah (good deed) for her husband to divorce her.
Hannah’s husband, however, stood fast in his refusal to grant the get. This led to a new rabbinic court ruling in 2004 which then “mandated” his giving of the get.
The ruling read, “It is clear that this man’s only motive for continuing to deny his wife a get is revenge and all he wants is to keep her trapped in this marriage. We will not be a party to these actions, and have therefore altered the original decision and now 'mandate' the giving of the get."
Heartened by the 2004 Rabbinic Court decision, Hannah looked forward to starting a new life. Yet, that was not to happen.
Changing tactics, in 2005, Hannah’s husband approached the Rabbinic Court with a new request. He wanted conditions attached to the get. The court agreed and put the 2004 “mandate” decision on hold until it heard the husband’s claim, classifying the husband as “not recalcitrant.”
In 2006, following Hannah’s consent to transfer all property issues to the rabbinical court’s jurisdiction, the court again supported Hannah’s position and gave her husband two weeks to grant a get. But, the husband still refused, making additional demands; this time, regarding child support and his wife’s pension.
In 2007, relating to the husband’s embedded stance, the Rabbinic Court ruled for a second time that the husband is “mandated” to give his wife a get.
"This is a case of entrenched recalcitrance… the Rabbinic Court supports the position of the wife… It is clear that the husband’s intention is to use the divorce as a bargaining chip... We will not allow ourselves to be a party to these actions. Therefore, we rule that the husband is ‘mandated’ to give his wife a get.”
When the get was still not forthcoming, the Rabbinic Court imposed sanctions on the husband, which also had little effect.
Having been separated from her husband for eight years and frustrated by five futile years of litigation in the rabbinic courts, Hannah had little faith in the system and decided to turn to the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) for help.
Yifat Frankenberg, a CWJ attorney, filed a tort claim in family court on Hannah’s behalf, suing Hannah’s husband for compensatory damages.
The Rabbinic Court was extremely unhappy with this turn of events, to say the least. Incensed by this challenge to their authority, in 2009, the court ruled it would only authorize a get if Hannah dropped the tort claim. Otherwise, they would declare any get given a get meuseh (a “coerced” get – a get must be given of the husband’s free will in order for it to be valid).
After over nine years and countless deliberations in the Rabbinic Court, Hannah was in the same place she started in 2002. Although she had received two rulings in her favor stipulating that the husband is mandated to give her a get, both were rescinded – one due to the husband’s insistence on conditioning the get on property and monetary issues and the second because of Hannah’s unwillingness to drop the civil damage suit.
In short – zero progress.
The civil courts on the other hand, in a relatively short time, delivered a decisive judgment for Hannah.
Presiding Judge Esther Stein ruled that the plaintiff (i.e., Hannah) was in the right and for her suffering and anguish all these years, she is due hundreds of thousands of shekels in compensation.
The Court held that "refusal to divorce constitutes a violation of the values protected by the ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom,’ which includes: freedom of choice, the right to self-fulfillment, the right to dignity and equal rights."
Judge Stein added that in this particular case, the husband is morally bound to divorce his wife, given the rabbinic mandates which were only cancelled due to external reasons.
Hanna may never receive her get. But now, she and her six children have a secure roof over their head as her husband’s equity interest in their apartment will be transferred to Hannah’s name. There are honorable judges in Israel after all.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic court pleader who works at The Center for Women’s Justice . Tel. 972-2-5664390
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