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Judges Stun Rabbinical Court, Ruling Civil Law Applies in Divorce

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In a landmark decision, Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that rabbinical courts must apply civil, rather than religious, law to property settlements in divorce cases.

Last week’s decision overturns a ruling by the Supreme Rabbinical Court here, which had not recognized the rights of a divorcee, Chana Bavli, to half of all assets accumulated in her marriage.

The groundbreaking ruling is sending shock waves through the religious establishment, which views this as an unprecedented erosion of its traditional jurisdiction and has vowed to resist the measure.

"The Jewish judges will not (comply with) the decision, because it is not according to halachah," or religious law, said Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, director of Israel’s rabbinical courts.

More staunch rejection of the ruling came from Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a Knesset member from the United Torah Party.

"The so-called Supreme Court," he said, "is not supposed to mix in and give orders to the rabbinic courts, to order them to make decisions according to secular principles."

Ravitz had been poised to formally request a government response to the ruling but said he was asked by Justice Minister David Libai to postpone his request for a week so that Libai could examine the ruling before responding.

A special Knesset session has been called for this week to discuss the ruling.

Ravitz described the ruling as "not only chutzpah" and "provocation" but also as a violation of the secular law that provides that rabbinical courts make their decisions according to halachah.

He also said no religious judge would abide by it.

The decision has delighted many women, who see more justice in a law that divides martial assets in half. Civil courts call for equal division of all marital assets upon divorce.

Miriam Isserow, attorney for the Israel Women’s Network, called the ruling "precedent-setting" and said it would "neutralize the current disadvantage women have in the rabbinical courts."

Naomi Blumenthal, a Knesset member from the Likud, also hailed the decision.

"Women are victims of the religious courts in matters of personal status," said Blumenthal, who chairs the Knesset subcommittee on violence against women.

Blumenthal said she has high respect for religious law and is not seeking a separation between religion and state.

But she said she is "asking for justice for women" in a religious system which discriminates against them.

Under Israeli law, rabbinical courts have enjoyed sole jurisdiction over marriage and divorce between Jews. But couples have had a choice between civil and religious courts on "incidental" matters such as property settlements in divorce cases, Isserow explained.

In rabbinical courts, commonly held assets are divided in half, but assets in the name of one spouse, such as employment pensions, remain with that spouse, said Ben-Dahan of the religious courts.

The wife is usually awarded a token sum, as specified in the marriage contract.

Rabbi Simha Meron, a lawyer and former director of the religious courts, said the ruling’s impact is "not all that meaningful" if measured by the number of affected cases.

He maintained that most couples who come before the religious courts have already reached a halachically determined agreement.

"The main problem," said Meron, is that "the court said the rabbis must judge according to civil law."

"The Knesset gives the rabbinical courts the power to judge with rabbinical law," he said. "If you take away rabbinical law, you don’t need rabbinical courts."

Meron said the Supreme Court’s decision will not stick.

"The rabbis cannot and will not break (Jewish) law," he said. "They have no right to rule against halachah."

Moreover, he predicted now "people will go more and more" before the high court.

Ben-Dahan predicted that the ruling will make it more difficult to divorce in rabbinical courts.

He said wives will come before the religious courts expecting to get half the marital assets and the husbands will refuse to grant the get (divorce), "because they will say it is against halachah."

Isserow, the attorney for the women’s network, observed that rabbis will no longer be able to use advantageous property settlements to induce recalcitrant husbands to grant divorces.

The issue goes to the heart of the "delicate balance" between religion and state said Blumenthal, "which lies at the root" of Israel’s foundation.

She said, "We have to be sure" that the fervently Orthodox will not tip "the balance in their favor and against women."

"Women are the victims of the injustice of concessions made as part of this balance," she said. "We suffer because we don’t have the political power to fight."

According to the Israeli newspaper Davar, Rabbi Sha’ar Yeshuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, called for all Israel’s chief rabbis and rabbinical judges to assemble to discuss the matter.

Cohen reportedly said it would be possible for such an assembly to decree new property division rules for the rabbinical courts that would adhere to the high court decision.

The former Israeli chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Shlomo Goren, suggested that couples interested in dividing their property according to halachah in the event of divorce sign a prenuptial agreement to that effect, Davar reported.

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