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Taking stock on International Agunah Day 5777

Israel takes one step forward and then two giant steps back, when it comes to protecting women in rabbinic courts

One tends to measure changes in units of years. As such, Israeli society scrutinizes developments in the agunah situation — a fundamental blight on our society — on International Agunah Day, which is marked yearly on the Fast of Esther, this year on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Aside from examining change over the past year on an individual basis counting the women who found themselves victims of get-refusal, the significant question is — what has developed in regard to the agunah problem within the Israeli rabbinic establishment?

Indeed there was one accomplishment of note. The Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court judges — dayanim — succeeded in appointing 32 dayanim within the past year and a half. This finally came about after eight years of no appointments, while sitting judges reached the age of mandatory retirement and their places were not filled.

Following the passing of an amendment to Israeli civil law, four women were included in the 11-person commission. (With proper disclosure — this writer was the first female rabbinical court advocate appointed as a member of the commission.) 22 of the judges filled the ranks of the regional rabbinical courts. The High Rabbinic Court of Appeals stood empty of permanent judges, thus all 10 of its members were appointed by the commission. The 32 appointees made up a full third of the cadre of rabbinical court judges.

Never before had so many judges been appointed at the same time. This was a historic event — determining the fate, not only of individual agunot, but of Jewish law policy worldwide.

However, the detractions were obvious for all to see, displayed on the pages of the newspapers and the internet. The appointments process is and continues to be infused with politics, an ugly arm-wrestling contest in which powerful Haredi political machinations time and again dictate which candidates will be granted the lucrative position of a rabbinical court judge.

Furthermore, the president of the High Rabbinical Court singlehandedly rendered an outrageous decision that cast a particular women’s status into turmoil — along with the status of all divorcees past and future. The trigger was a tremendous stride that had been taken bravely by a particular rabbinical court judge in Tzfat — freeing a woman by giving her a get, after her husband had lain in a permanent vegetative state for seven years, based on a brilliant interpretation of rabbinic law. It was completely within the judge’s jurisdiction and authority to rule in this manner.

The innovative ruling was immediately followed by an outpouring of caustic criticism by the ultra-Orthodox sectors in Israel, as well as Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who also functions as president of the High Rabbinical Court of Appeals. Not only was this Tzfat judge quickly removed from his candidacy for the High Rabbinical Court, but more than two years later, the president of the rabbinical courts attempted to establish jurisdiction over this ruling in the High Court of Appeals — although no one had even submitted an appeal of the decision!

This attempt at a power grab threw the woman’s life into turmoil, returning her to the question of whether she was still an agunah. Moreover, the manner in which this was done threatens the finality of judgement in every divorce case. This means that all individuals who get a divorce must fear for the remainder of his or her life that they may be returned to their status as married at any point in the future! At the moment the civil High Court of Justice is adjudicating the propriety of the High Rabbinical Court’s actions and, while the justices have severely criticized those actions, a ruling is yet to be handed down.

The bottom line is that for every step forward, there are those who pull that step back — way, way back, as if to overcompensate for any progress. One wonders how long this can continue.

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.
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