I have written previously about the rabbinical courts in Israel, a court system which shares jurisdiction with Israel’s civil courts on divorce, family law, and personal status cases, but which applies entirely different law. This disparity often leads to a race to the courthouse among dueling spouses in divorce cases. Among the most controversial aspects of the religious law is a husband’s traditional power to withhold permission for the couple to divorce, which can trap women in unhappy or abusive relationships. Of late, the rabbinical courts have attempted to respond by sanctioning these “recalcitrant husbands,” although not to the degree advocated by women’s rights groups.
In an important new ruling, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau has announced that aspiring rabbinical judges will now have to certify they have personally have not refused to grant their own wives a divorce. While refusal to grant a divorce is not automatically disqualifying, it will have that practical effect on a candidacy. An official in Rabbi Lau’s office stated that “Disqualifying candidates to be rabbinical judges for having been divorce refusers constitutes a values-based statement that a man who does not listen to the instructions of a rabbinical court can never be allowed to be a judge in a rabbinical court.”
Earlier this week, Israel’s rabbinical courts released their annual statistics on divorces granted in the country, noting a very slight uptick over last year. The statistics also identified the number of divorces granted to women whose husbands had left the country, as well as the number of “recalcitrant husbands” who were sanctioned by the courts for refusing to grant a divorce to their wives.
The latter statistics are relevant because marriage and divorce in Israel is governed by Jewish law (halacha), and divorces fall purely within the province of the country’s rabbinical courts. To obtain a divorce, both parties to the marriage must agree. In practice, this often means that a woman who wants a divorce (for any reason, including spousal abuse) cannot obtain one without her husband’s consent. Courts are authorized to sanction “recalcitrant husbands” who refuse to agree to a divorce, but this process typically takes years of court hearings.
Shortly after the statistics were released, several women’s groups in Israel questioned their validity. In particular, the groups claimed that the number of sanctioned husbands badly underestimated the number of husbands nationwide who refused to grant a divorce. The groups also questioned the statistics showing that 211 women were granted divorces in 2016 after their husbands fled the country, noting that the special court unit charged with administering such divorces would have granted almost one per workday–an impossibly high amount.