Israel’s Rabbinical Court Jails Husband Indefinitely for Refusing to Divorce Wife

A fascinating story from Israel. According to the Jerusalem Post, the country’s Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals has ordered that a man be imprisoned indefinitely for refusing to grant his wife a bill of divorce, or get, under Jewish law. Tzivya Gorodetzki sued her husband, Meir, for divorce in 2001. Under Israeli law, religious tribunals have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, so the case went before a rabbinical court, or beit din, which ordered Meir to give Tzivya a get. Under Jewish law, a divorce is effective only when the husband voluntarily gives the wife a get. Otherwise, the wife is an agunah, or “chained woman,” who may not remarry.

This is where things became interesting. Meir refused to give his wife the get. To punish him for contempt, and to encourage him to change his mind, the rabbinical court sentenced him to prison, where he has been for the last 10 years, the maximum term the rabbis could impose. Prison authorities tried various methods to make him relent, including solitary confinement, but nothing worked. Fearing that Meir would flee the country after his release, Tzivya went back to the beit din and asked it to extend Meir’s sentence indefinitely. In what the Post calls a “groundbreaking ruling,” the rabbinical judges complied. “The keys to your release are in your own hands,” the chief rabbinical judge told Meir at the hearing, “through the fulfillment of your obligations as a Jew. Release your wife and then you will receive your freedom.”

Accommodating religious law in a civil legal system is often problematic. Values clash, and it is difficult to know how much authority to give religious tribunals.  Countries adopt different approaches. From the outside, this particular accommodation seems extreme. Granting religious courts the power to imprison people indefinitely is no small matter. As I understand it, Israel’s Supreme Court has reserved the right to review the decisions of religious tribunals for compliance with Israel’s Basic Law, though rabbinical courts dispute this. I wonder if the Supreme Court will have an occasion to review this ruling.

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