Secular power balances the harshness of Israel’s religious courts

Source: The Economist

Israel’s contest between religious and secular justice


IN ANY country where secular courts and religious ones compete to adjudicate people’s lives, tricky situations can arise. The two systems invariably get entangled. One such country is Israel, where marriage and divorce among Jewish citizens is regulated by a traditionalist religious body, the Orthodox Rabbinate—but secular justice can still occasionally intervene.

In a recent closely watched saga, the Israeli High Court weighed in on a dispute between two different rabbinical courts, and as a result confirmed the right of a woman—whose husband was in a coma—to restart her own life.

This is sensitive territory. Rabbinical law takes very seriously the question of when to release a woman from a marriage which she believes to be dead, whether because of a tragedy or human strife. A judge who makes a mistaken ruling, and wrongly frees a woman to remarry, may be complicit in her subsequent “adultery”, according to some Jewish legal thinking. Some rabbinical justices refuse to get involved in such cases because the burden of risk is too heavy.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the widows of Jewish men who disappeared in the collapsed buildings had to wait for months while evidence was gathered to prove conclusively that their husbands were really dead. The dilemma arises more frequently in cases of marital breakdown in which the husband refuses to grant the wife a get, or Jewish divorce.

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