Rachel Levmore
Rachel Levmore

Prisoner Escapes from the Israeli Rabbinical Court

In the Jewish Democratic State, Rabbinical Court Judges are an integral part of the Justice system – with similar powers to civil judges in their specific area of jurisdiction. The Israeli State Rabbinical Court, by virtue of the civil law passed in the Knesset, has sole jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish citizens or residents. As a result, when a divorce suit is brought before the Court, the dayanim (Rabbinical Court Judges) have powers that are enforced by other State institutions. If a husband refuses to divorce his wife by giving her get (Jewish writ of divorce) when ordered to do so, the Rabbinical Court can levy sanctions against him and the civil authorities will enforce their implementation. For example, his professional license (as a doctor, lawyer, electrician and the like) can be rescinded, his bank accounts closed, or his driver’s license or passport cancelled. Moreover, the rabbis who sit in judgment can issue an order of incarceration and the Israeli Police and Prison Services will cart the recalcitrant man off to prison.

It is not uncommon to enter the Rabbinical Court building in Jerusalem and see Prison Service Officers escorting a man through the halls and locking him in the holding cell in the building, until called for his court session. The man will be shuffling along – his wrists clamped together in handcuffs while his legs are loosely bound by chains as proper procedure dictates when transporting prisoners outside of prison walls. There is no need to pity the prisoner. For he holds the key to his own freedom. In a matter of minutes he can agree to obey the ruling of the Rabbinical Court and free his wife from the chains in which he has bound her by giving her a get. At that very moment, he too will literally be set free. Right there in the courtroom, his chains will be removed and he will be a free man.

Today, Tuesday March 6, 2013, 40 year-old prisoner Shai Cohen was liberated from his chains and stepped into the streets of Jerusalem – cruelly leaving his wife still chained to him and screaming in the halls of the Rabbinical Court. For Shai Cohen played on the compassion of his fellow Jews. This man who had been refusing to grant his wife a get for 12 years, who had disappeared in the past until he was caught and then kept incarcerated for the past six years and until he would give the get, who has not seen his children for six years due to his own actions (or lack thereof) — played the system. He notified the Court that he was willing to give the get, while submitting a doctor’s note to the Prison Services that stated he should not be handcuffed due to a medical condition. For some reason he was not wearing the standard prison uniform when he arrived in the court, but was dressed in civilian clothing. Once there, he refused to enter the assigned courtroom while wearing leg chains. The police officers in charge of his transport acquiesced so as to smooth things along and removed them. The wife’s attorney, Osnat Karplus-Galam, director of the Family Law Legal Aid Clinic of the Rackman Center in Bar Ilan University Law School, later reported that this was not the first time Cohen received such lenient treatment. Karplus-Galam described how following the hearing, in which the recalcitrant husband agreed to give a get for the first time in twelve years, he was removed from the courtroom and the leg-chains were not restored. The prisoner asked to use the bathroom and was permitted to do so without his hands or legs secured. Only after he jumped from the second story bathroom window, causing an audible whack, did the tumult erupt. The manhunt began in the holy city of Jerusalem, helicopter and all, for a Jewish man who cynically planned his escape from Jewish Justice. (At the time of this writing he has not been found.) His wife, who married him at twenty-seven years old and bore him two children in the two years they lived together, just turned forty years old. Twelve long years she has been an agunah, plodding through the system, aided by the good graces of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women, headed by Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari.

Approximately one thousand years ago, our Sages taught an important lesson that was not heeded today by the Israeli authorities. Knowing that Jews are predisposed to compassion, they warned us (Kohelet Rabba 7; Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel I, 247): “All who are compassionate to those who are cruel are destined to be cruel to the compassionate.” It is not due to a cruel fate that Mrs. Cohen is an agunah today. It is due to a cruel compassion.

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; member of Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.