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Jewish Woman Granted Divorce From Comatose Husband

Israeli Rabbinical Court issues groundbreaking ruling

Batya Ungar-Sargon
May 23, 2014

A Rabbinical Court in Safed, Israel, has issued a groundbreaking ruling, granting a divorce to a woman whose husband has been in a coma for seven years, Haaretz reports. Jewish law requires that both parties consent to divorce; though a comatose husband is grounds for dissolving a marriage according to Jewish law, in practice, the rabbinic courts tend rule conservatively, rarely granting a wife permission to leave an incapacitated husband. This court, however, invoked a rare legal procedure called a “Gett Zikui”—a divorce of credit—in order to free the woman, who is 34 years old, from her marriage. The court published a lengthy 93-page ruling explaining their decision.

The idea behind the “Gett Zikui”, a concept typically used in civil matters, is the halakhic principle that one party may be benefited from the ruling even in their absence—or without their explicit consent; in this case, it meant taking into consideration that it would likely be the will of the husband to grant his wife a divorce if he could, and thus he is being benefitted by the divorce as well, even though it is being imposed without his explicit consent.

The case was heard by a panel of three dayanim, or judges, headed by Rabbi Uriel Lavi, who is also a candidate for the Rabbinic Court of Appeals. It was being heard for the second time. Haaretz reports that initially, the judges sought support from Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, head of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals. But he refused, and they turned instead to Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a dayan from an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court outside the state-run system.

Both the use of Gett Zikui, as well as turning to an authority not part of the usual channels, represents big strides taken by the rabbinic courts for the cause of agunot, or chained women, and sets a precedent for women seeking Jewish divorces in Israel. According to Haaretz, in their ruling, the rabbis “acknowledged that this is a ‘huge innovation,’ and that some of its foundations in halakha (Jewish law) are ‘controversial.’ Nevertheless, they said, the decision is halakhically valid.”

The wife received help not only from the rabbinical court, but also from an organization called Mavoi Satum which aids agunot in their quest for freedom.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.