Women, Gender Equality, and Jewish Law in Israel

A talk by Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari

February 6, 2007

In Israel, there is no such thing as civil marriage. Marriage and divorce fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of religious courts. For those subject to Jewish law, it is possible for a woman to be granted a divorce, or "get," by a rabbinical court, to remarry and to have children in her second marriage – only then to be informed that the rabbinical court has retroactively invalidated the divorce. As explained by Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, inaugural lecturer for the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute's "Day of Learning on Women, Gender Equality and Jewish Law in Israel," the woman denied the get is considered bound to her first marriage, and a child born to the second marriage carries the stigma of having been conceived illegitimately.

Halperin-Kaddari, a member of the UN Expert Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Director of the Rackman Centre for the Advancement of Women's Status, and a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law, described in her keynote address on Feb. 6 the abuses produced by the gender imbalances and contradictions inherent in Israeli family law. While Halperin-Kaddari sees a "gender war" – that is, economic and social inequality between men and women – as prevalent worldwide, she explained that Israel's gender inequality is compounded by the battle between civil and rabbinical courts for jurisdiction in divorce cases. Only religious courts can dissolve marriages, but both civil and religious courts have jurisdiction to deal with property, maintenance, and custody issues. A man can circumvent civil order for maintenance and child support in his wife's favor by approaching the rabbinical court. A man may also engage in "divorce extortion" – conditioning delivery of the get on such things as the portion of the family property that his ex-wife will receive, or the amount he will pay toward child support. Halperin-Kaddari described efforts by women's rights advocates to urge rabbinical judges to refuse to be complicit in divorce extortion and for the reform of the underlying religious law, which makes such unfair bargaining possible and acceptable.

Halperin-Kaddari's talk was sponsored by the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The director of the project is Dr. Lisa Fishbayn.