Jerusalem – A decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court to allow a man to marry a second wife because his first wife refused to accept a divorce has evoked consternation from women’s rights groups due to what they describe as the unequal status of men and women facing divorce refusal.
A case published this week by the Rabbinical Courts Administration involved a married couple whose relationship broke down for a number of reasons, including possible infidelity on behalf of the wife.
In 2005, the husband moved out of their marital home, and in 2008 the regional rabbinical court in Haifa issued a ruling of “obligatory divorce,” essentially instructing a partner, in this case the woman, to agree to the divorce.
The court also permitted the husband to give the money owed to the woman under the terms of their marriage contract to a third party, which would then release him of financial obligations to the woman such as child sustenance and living payments.
The woman appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court against the ruling regarding the husband’s monetary obligations, but the court rejected the appeal. She then filed a suit for reconciliation with her husband to the regional court, which she also lost, as well as a subsequent appeal of that decision to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Due to the lengthy and ongoing legal proceedings over the termination of the marriage, the husband filed a suit with the Haifa Rabbinical Court for what is known as the Dispensation of 100 Rabbis.
Under Jewish law, men may have more than one wife, although the practice was banned for Ashkenazi Jews by a decree of Rabbi Gershom Ben Judah in the 11th century. However, a man may be given dispensation from this decree in certain circumstances if he cannot obtain consent from his wife for a divorce, a measure which is known as the Dispensation of 100 Rabbis.
In 2014, the Haifa Rabbinical Court granted the husband’s request, after which his wife appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
In June of this year, the court rejected her appeal and permitted the husband to marry another woman if he so wished. The ruling was published earlier this week.
Divorce refusal by women is not uncommon, although it occurs to a lesser extent than divorce refusal by men, according to activists groups, who also note that there are hundreds of open cases of divorce refusal by men.
The Center for Women’s Justice, a women’s rights organization, reacted strongly to the publication of the decision, saying that it underlined the lack of equality for men and women in divorce proceedings in the country.
“This decision illustrates the intolerable gap between the situation of women denied a divorce and men in the same situation,” said Nitzan Caspi Shilon, an attorney for the center.
She noted that in situations in which a man faces divorce refusal, the courts provide a solution for him and that the state has laws preventing such a person from being criminally prosecuted for bigamy.
“By contrast, a woman denied a divorce has no such solution from the religious and civil legal systems. The rabbinical courts and the state are not taking steps to provide mechanisms by which a woman’s freedom is guaranteed, and if a husband refuses a divorce the wife can be a ‘chained woman’ forever,” said Caspi-Shilon.
In September, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said that when he sees a case in which a woman has refused to accept a divorce, he grants this dispensation.
According to the center, there are some 80 requests every year for the Dispensation of 100 Rabbis. In 2015, eleven of those requests were granted.
Last month, Yosef announced that the Supreme Rabbinical Court would hear an appeal of a third party against a decision of the Safed Rabbinical Court, which provided an innovative halachic solution for a woman whose husband has been in a vegetative state for nine years.
Since a divorce must be willingly given by the husband, and willingly accepted by his wife, for it to be valid in Jewish law, men who cannot be found or who are in permanent comas present severe difficulties in Jewish law when it comes to terminating the marriage.
The Safed Rabbinical Court ruled that since the husband cannot fulfill his marital duties, he would, if he were able, grant his wife the divorce.
Yosef vehemently objected to the ruling. He accepted the appeal of an uninvolved third party against the ruling and scheduled a hearing in the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
On Tuesday, the High Court of Justice said that it would hold a hearing on whether or not a third party has any standing to appeal in such a case.