The Poor Man’s Ewe-Lamb

The Rabbinical Court finally seems to be moving to keep up with the times, and the whole world is applauding.

A few days ago we were informed that the Chief Rabbinate Council has amended its policy in pursuit of equality; from now on, if the children are in their father’s custody, women will be required to pay child support, and if the children are in the women’s custody, her financial situation will be evaluated before obligating the father to pay support. (Until now, the obligation to pay for the financial support of minors was in accordance with the Jewish laws of personal status, which deems that this support is exclusively the father’s obligation.)

Apparently, this is finally the end to the discrimination and lack of equality in the Rabbinical Courts. What is there to complain about? After all, every day, women’s organizations raise the banner of equality and progress – particularly in places where inequality reigns supreme, like in the Rabbinical Courts.

However, as much as we applaud the move toward greater equality, this decision requires greater examination. Is it truly proof that the Rabbinical Court is adjusting to the times? Or is it, possibly, the removal of the only advantage that had been allowed to women through Jewish personal status laws?

As someone well-informed, who has been representing women in the Rabbinical Courts for years and who heads the largest organization in Israel to represent agunot and mesuravot get, I can say, sadly, that in all other areas regarding the status of women in religious law, the courts have lagged behind.

This is not a rebellious attempt to change areas of Jewish law that cannot be changed – such as the fact that it is the husband who must give the writ of divorce – but there are several issues contingent on finances or property in which the Rabbinical Court adopts a stricter approach, through which it is the woman who is harmed.

For example, take the obligation of child support until the child reaches 18 years of age: it is clear to any reasonable person that a child does not stop eating at the age of 18. Usually, at this age, the child is still living with their mother. Does the child stop eating at the age of 18 and a day? Is this the age at which the child must start looking for independent accommodation as his father has stopped paying for his maintenance? The Family Court related to this problem and ruled that between the ages of 18 and 21 the father must pay a third of the previously agreed-upon amount of child support.

In contrast, the Rabbinical Court does not accept the Family Court’s ruling and requires that child support be paid only until the age of 18. The primary loser is, of course, the mother and through her, obviously, the children.

This indifference to progress is evident also in other matters.

In another example, the Rabbinical Courts are obliged to rule according to the state’s Property Laws which view a pension accumulated by a husband during a marriage as joint property. But in many cases, we see that the Rabbinical Court does not follow this guideline; if the woman petitions for half of her husband’s pension, the court considers the request as inflated and unjustified.

In reality, the husband can at any moment prescribe conditions under which he will agree to grant the divorce, and the Rabbinical Court will usually adhere to the husband’s terms and convince the woman to agree to them in return for her freedom.

We must know that this is not driven by reality, and there are different ruling approaches negating this phenomenon of blackmail, though here as well, the courts are not happy to get with the times, equating the woman’s status with that of the man.

Many more examples of this abound. And yet, we see that the courts are making a move to “keep up with the times” only in this issue – when it has to do with men’s rights.

When it has to do with women’s rights – “keeping up with the times” is largely considered “modern” or “reform,” or described negatively as “the loud belligerence of women’s organizations.”

In my mind, the soundtrack that keeps playing are the words of the prophet Nathan in the Book of Samuel: “The rich man had many sheep and cattle and the poor man had but one small ewe-lamb that he had bought… Now a traveler came to the rich man, and unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd… he took the poor man’s ewe lamb…”

About the Author
Osnat is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as director of Yad L'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network.
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