LA Times After four years of marriage, Tamar Tessler filed for divorce, taking her infant daughter and embarking on what she hoped would be a new chapter of her life.
Today that daughter is 36 years old — and Tessler is still awaiting the divorce.
Her husband long ago moved to America, said the 61-year-old retired nurse. But under Israeli law, she remains trapped in a defunct marriage that her husband won't allow to end. She can't legally remarry, was obligated as his spouse to repay some of his debts, and lost out on tax breaks for single mothers even though she raised their daughter alone.
Tessler is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Israeli women caught in legal and social limbo because of a law that leaves matters of divorce for all Jewish citizens in the hands of a government-funded religious court.
The court, consisting of a panel of rabbis, bases its decisions on the customs of Orthodox Judaism. The rulings apply to all Jewish Israelis, whether they are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, observant or secular. And their authority even extends to those who married abroad in civil ceremonies that were registered in Israel. Divorce for non-Jews is handled by their own religious institutions.
Under the court's interpretation of Jewish religious law, a husband's, or wife's, consent is necessary to end a marriage. As has been the case for centuries, a Jewish divorce is not final in Israel until men deliver handwritten divorce decrees into the cupped hands of the women, who then must hold the paper aloft. A rabbi tears the document, called a get, into pieces, which are then filed for record-keeping.
The rabbis can order a reluctant spouse, usually a man, to grant the divorce, and Israel's parliament is considering a bill to expand the court's power to apply pressure. But if a spouse refuses to undertake the religious rite, the court says, it doesn't have the power to dissolve the marriage.
Rabbis have upheld the need for consent even in cases where a man has abused his wife, disappeared, lied about his sexuality or molested their children. [...]