Enforcing the “Jewish Prenup”

Thanks to Mark for the invitation back to the CLR Forum for a guest post.  Yesterday, a couple of law blogs (see here and here) picked up a story in the Jewish Daily Forward about an important Connecticut state court decision that enforced what is often referred to as the “Jewish Prenup” (“In Victory for ‘Chained’ Wives, Court Upholds Orthodox Prenuptial Agreement).  I’ve written a bit about the decision previously, but wanted to explain a little bit more about what is at stake.  [UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the decision Light v. Light reprinted from Westlaw with permission of Thomson Reuters.  If you wish to check the currency of this case by using KeyCite on Westlaw, then you may do so by visiting www.westlaw.com.”]

Under Jewish law, only a husband can initiate a Jewish divorce.  Moreover, if a husband is “coerced” into granting a divorce, then the divorce is considered invalid.  This combination of rules has caused some significant problems for Orthodox Jewish women seeking to end their marriage where their husband refuses to grant them a Jewish divorce document.  In order to address this growing problem, a number of Jewish organizations – most prominently, the Beth Din of America – created a prenuptial agreement, which is now signed by a growing number of Orthodox Jewish couples.  This agreement’s most salient feature is a provision where the husband agrees to provide his wife with financial support in the amount of $150 per day “so long as the two . . . remain married according to Jewish law.”  The purpose of this provision is to walk a fine line between placing financial pressure on the husband to ensure he grants the divorce without placing so much pressure so as to render any subsequent divorce granted by the husband “coerced” (for a recent article exploring various considerations on this and related points, see here starting on page 12).

It was this support provision that was enforced by the Connecticut Superior Court in its recent decision in the case of Light v. Light.  In so doing, the court considered the husband’s claim that enforcing the prenuptial agreement would violate the First Amendment by requiring the court to “consider[] religious doctrines and ceremonies.”  However, the court rejected this argument, holding that the prenuptial agreement could be interpreted and enforced in accordance with “neutral principles of law”:

In the present case, a determination as to whether the prenuptial agreement is enforceable would not require the court to delve into religious issues. Determining whether the defendant owes the plaintiff the specified sum of money does not require the court to evaluate the proprieties of religious teachings. Rather, the relief sought by the plaintiff is simply to compel the defendant to perform a secular obligation, i.e., spousal support payments, to which he contractually bound himself.

It is important to note here that the prenuptial agreement does not require the husband to grant his wife a Jewish divorce.  Indeed, courts have differed as to whether a contract in which a husband agrees to grant his wife a religious divorce is enforceable; the issue raised in such cases is whether or not civil enforcement of a contract that requires a husband to grant a religious divorce violates the religion clauses of the First Amendment (for contrasting views, see here and here).  By contrast, the prenuptial agreement simply requires the husband to make support payments, thereby avoiding these potential First Amendment problems.

This decision – which is in my view both correctly decided and well reasoned – is likely to have significant impact on any future cases involving this increasingly popular prenuptial agreement.  The “Jewish prenup” has done an impressive job of avoiding a variety of both constitutional objections and Jewish Law conundrums.  And as a result, this prenuptial agreement is likely to go quite far in protecting Orthodox Jewish women by providing them with the financial leverage necessary to ensure that they receive their religious divorces from otherwise reluctant husbands.

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.

Westreich on Annulment in Jewish Marriage Law

Avishalom Westreich (Ramat Gan) has posted The “Gatekeepers” of Jewish Marriage Law: Marriage Annulment as a Test Case, on SSRN. The abstract follows.

From early classic commentators to modern Jewish Law scholars, the character of marriage annulment in Jewish Law has been much debated. These debates revolve around the appropriate reading of Talmudic sources. Nevertheless, textual analysis of the main passages reveals support for almost all the competing opinions.

Normally, as the paper argues, Jewish Law is characterized by a pluralist discourse and, despite acrimonious controversies, the merits of competitive arguments are recognized, receiving some legitimacy – at least on a post factum level. Nevertheless, Jewish family law, and especially the case of marriage annulment, is characterized quite differently. In the last few decades some proposals of marriage annulment were raised as a solution to the problem of chained wives (agunot). On the basis of the Continue reading

Westreich on Wife’s Right to Jewish Divorce

Avishalom Westreich (Academic Center of Law and Business) has posted The Wife’s Right to Divorce in Jewish Law: History, Dogmatics and Hermeneutics. The abstract follows. –YAH

The paper has two aims: historical and dogmatic. Historical, in studying two actual Jewish Law traditions in which divorce was issued at the wife’s demand, with analysis of the legal interaction between them; dogmatic, in examining the status of three legal concepts of unilateral termination of marriage derived from these traditions: coercion of a get (a Jewish writ of divorce), terminative conditions, and annulment of marriage. The two topics lead to one integrated outcome: exploring the status of the tools which enable issuance of divorce in Jewish Law against the will of a recalcitrant spouse.

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