Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sentenced to Marriage

My film editor friend and colleague was completely taken by this film, showing at the L.A. Film Festival, and insisted that I see it. I knew what I was getting myself into, but sometimes one has no choice. I couldn’t argue the content of this documentary if I hadn’t seen it, or so she implied. And what was the subject? Well, the venality of rabbinical divorce courts in Israel.

So I saw it, and here are the facts, aided by my prior knowledge. In fact, if I hadn’t had this prior knowledge, there would have been no way for me to really understand the issues raised in this film. Maybe this will be more information that you want (or as my daughter says, TMI – Too Much Information), but I know that the “evils” of Israel always make for good copy:

1. As the film indicates, there is no civil marriage in Israel. Only religious marriage. Be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. This is an relic of laws passed in the early 50’s, and the religious political establishment in Israel has, as a matter of self-preservation and job preservation, insisted on maintaining it.

2. There is an alternative for Israelis wishing to marry in a civil marriage. They can go abroad (a brief trip to Cyprus will suffice) and get married there. The state recognizes such marriages. Not ideal, but it’s the path that many of my secular Israeli friends have followed.

3. Contrary to the claim of this movie – there IS civil divorce in Israel, done through the family court system.

4. Why is the state requirement for Jewish marriage a problem? Well, there are a few reasons. The first is that it’s a form of religious coercion. The second, that it is a means of maintaining a taxpayer-funded religious establishment that has all the characteristics of a bureaucracy – lifelong employment, lack of accountability,… you know what I’m talking about. The third, that to get out of a Jewish marriage with no baggage, you need a Jewish divorce. More on this below.

5. There is a fundamental asymmetry in Jewish law. A man can divorce his wife. A wife cannot divorce her husband. She needs to get the divorce from him. This inequality is supposed to be mitigated by rabbinical courts in cases of the husband’s intransigence, by forcing the husband to give his wife a divorce. In fact, in Israel rabbinical courts can send a husband to jail indefinitely for refusing to divorce his wife. But that only happens at the discretion of the court, and only if there is a significant reason that can be given for the divorce. In essence, it requires showing that the husband is at fault. Not easy, and not always doable.

6. Why then would Jewish women in Israel want to get a Jewish divorce if a no-fault civil divorce is available? Well, there are a couple of reasons. One, somewhat subtle one for us secular Jews, is that by Jewish law she would be committing adultery if she had relations with another man, and in Jewish law this is a major infraction. The second, which is significant even to secular Jews like myself, is that any child she would have with a subsequent partner would be deemed a bastard, unable to marry within the Jewish community for 10 generations. For people like me, this is the crux of the matter.

As the film shows, dealing with the Israeli rabbinical courts can be a nightmare for women. The combination of a chauvinistic judge with a law that highly favors men can give appalling results. And the real issue is that unlike the American system, where rabbis are accountable to the congregations that pay their salaries, within the state-financed Israeli religious system, rabbis are often beholden to no one.

The combination of condescending, chauvinistic judges aided and abetted by a legal system that favors men, and orthodox women desperate for a Jewish divorce is the picture that this film shows. It includes recordings of rabbinical judges discussing with wives the appropriate sum with which to “buy off” their husband. It includes cases of judges refusing to force a divorce even though the husband is already living with another woman and has children with her.

I hate to try to apologize for the Israeli religious establishment. There really is no excuse. And for women caught in this trap, it’s a real tragedy. Ultimately, there is no excuse for state sanctioned religious marriage and divorce, or for a state-funded religious establishment. Such things should be outside the jurisdiction or the funding of the state.

As for the basic problem of Jewish women who cannot get a divorce from their husbands and cannot get a court to force it, well, the best remedy is prevention. As an orthodox rabbi in Israel once told me, Jews should stop marrying in Jewish weddings. The problem of bastards and of adultery would not exist if Jews stuck to civil weddings.

I personally didn’t follow his recommendation. I got married in a Jewish marriage, and I got a Jewish divorce. But if I had it to do all over again… well, I don’t know…


At 3:06 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Cosmo: The film is a one-sided documentary. While there are some horror stories, there are lots of successful female "advocates" who are getting alot done, and there are plenty of decent courts with caring judges.

The film is patently one-sided to provie its thesis.

At 7:50 AM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

Unquestionably this film focuses on the horror stories. But the fact that these specific judges are there is a condemnation of the whole system. There's no excuse even if they're not the majority.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, a new bill was submitted to the Knesset today, for women to give grades to rabbinic judges on their rulings for family court. This should be an effective way to help reduce the horror cases. Even though 1 terrible case is one too many, the majority of cases work out well.

I believe there are less than 5 agunot in Israel today.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

That's a very good move. I appreciate it. But what are you referring to as the baby? Is the baby Jewish marriage, or is it a state-sponsored Jewish court system. If it's the latter, then I disagree. I don't see any justification for Israeli taxpayers to sponsor a federal rabbinical court system. The one I used in the U.S., which is orthodox, is payed for by donations, and by those who use it. We payed $500 for the three judge panel to acknowledge and write out the get. That's the way it should work in Israel too.

At 2:56 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...


Like it or not, the State run marriage/divorce system by rabbinical courts is the only thing holding Israel togther as Jewish country. The second you get rid of it completly (and there are cracks in the system) then there will be 2 nations living in Israel, who will not intermarry between them. But this is a long discussion, and I have to get back to work now.

At 7:55 AM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

I disagree. What keeps Jews together in Israel is the fact that they're all Jews, so they socialize and marry with Jews. It's the rabbinical court system that keeps them apart, because it creates a level of antagonism between secular and religious Jews that just doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. My mother, who lives in Israel, hyperventilates when she talks about the orthodox community, and it's because of things like the rabbinical court. On the other hand, Jews in L.A., even if they're fairly secular, socialize freely with orthodox friends, without any of this pent-up rage. And... they seem to prefer to wed in Jewish weddings.

I think you'd find that if you reduced state coercion, the relations between the different Jewish sectors in Israel would improve.


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