Dr. Rachel Levmore, director of the Project for the Prevention of Agunot and Get-Refusal of the International Young Israel Movement (IYIM) and the Jewish Agency, has been appointed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to the State Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.
According to the Chief Rabbinate, there are several hundred women in Israel whose husbands refuse to sign divorce papers – making them “bound,” or agunot, unable to marry someone else, as they are still officially married according to Jewish law. Unofficial sources place the number at several thousand.
Under Israeli law, women can petition the Rabbinical Courts to declare husbands who refuse to sign divorce decrees as “recalcitrant,” a status which enables courts to punish them. Such husbands can be jailed or have their assets seized if they refuse to grant their wives a divorce.
However this method has not always proven effective, as in some cases the husbands flee abroad, or demand large payments or the waiving of property rights in return for their signature. In order to forestall this, rabbis in several Modern Orthodox movements have developed a form of a prenuptial agreement that rabbis say conform to the strictures of Jewish law, while giving husbands the incentives they need to sign divorce papers.
Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate who represents women in divorce proceedings as a sort of “attorney,” has developed, along with several rabbis, an agreement called a Heskem L’Kavod Hadadi (Agreement for Mutual Respect), in which the bride and the groom obligate themselves to support his or her spouse with up to half their monthly net income. The obligation comes into effect after a specific period, and the only way either party can shed this legal and halachic obligation is by granting their spouse a divorce. Since the husband is, according to the marriage contract, obligated to support his wife while they are married, an obligation that can be met from income or from assets. The agreement essentially puts a contractual obligation and penalty – enforceable in not only rabbinical, but in secular, courts – providing an important incentive for recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives divorces, as the court can garnish wages or seize assets, like apartments, to fulfill the contract.
Levmore was instrumental in developing this agreement, and has worked with men and women of all backgrounds - young and old; impoverished or well-off; religious, traditional, hareidi, secular and unaffiliated – to negotiate the difficult process of Jewish divorce.
The Heskem L'Kavod Hadadi is not without its detractors, however. The highly influential Rabbi Eliezer Melamed has recommended to readers of his weekly column in Besheva Magazine not to sign the agreement, on several grounds. These include the fact that the agreement does not require that the divorce be carried out in a religious court, and that it is based on a "no fault" principle that does not attempt to determine which partner is to blame for the failure of the marriage. As long as this "great wrong" is not corrected, he wrote, the agreement is faulty, in terms of halakha and morality.
Family values advocates also dispute the accuracy of statistics provided by feminist institutes regarding the number of women who are refused gets, and note that a survey by the rabbinical courts found that while there are 180 women who are officially designated as victims of recalcitrant husbands, there are even more men who are victims of recalcitrant wives.
Praising Livni's decision, IYIM said that “Dr. Levmore is ideally suited for the difficult task of the appointment of dayanim-- Rabbinical Court Judges. In this time of fractionalization of Israeli society, Dr. Levmore is a unifying presence.
“In the IYIM-JAFI Project for the Prevention of Agunot and Get-Refusal, Dr. Levmore resolves cases of agunah and get-refusal as well as develops halachic solutions to the agunah problem—with particular emphasis on the dissemination of the prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect for the prevention of get-refusal,” IYIM said. “Whether through individual counseling, the publication of popular and academic articles, the engagement of rabbinic forums in Israel and abroad, lectures around the Jewish world or academic presentations – Dr. Levmore has actively brought about the spread of the acceptance of prenuptial agreements as a successful preventative tool to the problem of the agunah – the chained woman.
“IYIM has full confidence that through this appointment to the State Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges, Dr. Rachel Levmore will have a positive influence in molding the Israeli State Rabbinical Courts to answer the great need of the general Israeli public for a responsive and compassionate Rabbinic Court system,” the organization added.