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A Modest Proposal — Disband the Rabbinical Courts

I once read a book by a Western doctor who did his obstetrics residency in Algeria. The place had no equipment. No medicine. Not even educated staff. In the end, he concluded that it was ” just a place where an unusual number of women were giving birth.”

Much the same can be said of the Rabbinical Courts in Israel: It is just a place were an unusual number of people are seeking justice. It’s an accident if they get it.

Case one: My friend “Ruth,” remember her? The Rabbi’s wife, mother of twelve, who left an adulterous husband and has been forcibly separated from her children for almost four years?

With the transfer of Ruth’s case to the capable hands of lawyer Shmuel Casper (G-d bless him), things began to move. A year ago, three judges of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court decided that Ruth’s children should be brought to a court-appointed psychologist by their father to prepare them for a meeting with their mother.

A day after this decision was made, one of the judges got a phone call (it couldn’t have been the father’s uncle, a distinguished head of a Rabbinical Academy, member of the Council of Torah Sages, now could it?).

The judge immediately resigned.

The judgment for the mother was put on hold. For an entire, heartbreaking year, the Court dallied. It wanted to appoint a new set of judges, Rav Dahan wrote. Mr. Casper opposed this, and went to the police, asking them to investigate the person who had intimidated the judge. The police refused, for “lack of public interest.” Mr. Casper then appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

I’m delighted to say he won.

Rabbi Lau, (G-d bless him!) Chief Rabbi, and Supreme Court head, reprimanded the judge and ordered him to enforce the judgment. If the father doesn’t comply, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court needs to involve the police.

We’ll let you know what happens…

And its not just women who are being plowed under.

Case two: A couple with seven children divorced. The father, a devout religious Jew, disdained his friends’ advice and did not hold up the writ of divorce to squeeze his wife for concessions. All matters of custody and finances were left for later. The court appointed a respected psychologist to help decide custody.

In his report, the psychologist said the children were victims of abuse, and pointed to the mother and maternal grandfather as the perpetrators. The father asked that the two young boys, the children most at risk, be immediately transferred to his custody.

What did the Court do? They ignored their own Court-appointed psychologist’s report and accepted the mother’s suggestion that a family friend, a social worker with a spotted reputation, be asked to prepare another report (and obviously one more favorable to her…) The Court, inexplicably, thought this was a wonderful idea. But the vociferous objections of the father forced them to concede that, perhaps, after all, a psychologist was needed. So they appointed THE SAME psychologist (whose report they had ignored) again to prepare another report.

In the meantime, without the father’s knowledge or approval, one daughter was spirited out of the country, ostensibly to go to summer camp. Despite a $60,000 bond signed by the mother and grandmother guaranteeing her return, to be paid to the father if she didn’t, the daughter is still in America. When the father applied to the Court to enforce the bond, his request was ignored.

In the meantime, the abuse continues, the children (and their father) are miserable, longing for more time together than the two days a week and every other Shabbat the Court now allows. Ironically, religious law usually encourages the court to give male children over to their fathers in the wake of divorce.

How can we begin to understand the Court’s behavior? Perhaps this will help: the mother’s family is part of one of the greatest and most distinguished in the Rabbinical world. Her great-grandfather actually founded the religious world’s most influential political movement.

The Bible says: A judge must not perpetrate injustice, accept bribes or be partial or afraid (Deut. 1:17). He may not favor the poor or discriminate [even] against the wicked (Ex. 23:6). He is forbidden to hear one litigant without the other being present (Ex 23:1). He is forbidden from accepting testimony from relatives of those involved in a case (Deut. 24:16). Every person appointed as a rabbinical court judge in Israel must pledge to dispense justice fairly, not to pervert the law and to show no favor.

I assert that the Rabbinical Court system in Israel is rife with corruption, favoritism, and plain incompetence. Judges saunter in whenever it pleases them. They hold conferences in the hallways with Yiddish-speaking whisperers. Nothing is computerized. Files often get dusty, torn, lost.

Except those of powerful, well-connected litigants. Those are treated, as we see, quite differently.

For those secular Jews which Israeli laws force to go to Rabbinic Courts for divorces, it is an embittering experience which ensures their continued disdain of the Torah.

It serves no one well. Secular or religious.

The time has come to disband it, giving its powers to decide monetary and custody matters over to the civil courts. As for religious issues, let each community set up its own court, accepting judges on the basis of their learning and righteousness, not their political connections.

It’s a modest proposal whose time has come. Those who are interested in getting involved in changing the Rabbinic Court system, or who have been victims of it, can please contact me or [email protected]

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