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Israel Judicial Branch: Rabbinical Courts vs Civil Courts

Israel has two coexisting legal systems: religious courts (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze) and civil courts. When a Jewish couple is about to divorce, the husband tends to race to a rabbinical court, while the wife rushes to a civil court. Although the divorce itself has to go through the rabbinical court, the court in which the case is filed first has jurisdiction concerning alimony, child custody, and division of property (provided that these matters were included in the first suit), and civil courts are known to be more generous to women than rabbinical courts. The Family Courts Law, enacted in 1995, established a new category of civil courts to adjudicate these matters.

On Feb. 11, 1997, a man filed for divorce in the Tel Aviv Regional Rabbinical Court and included the question of alimony in his suit. His wife subsequently sued for alimony in family court. The husband claimed that because the case was already being adjudicated, Family Court had no competence to deal with the matter. The latter rejected this argument; in July 1997 both courts held hearings. Family Court judge Yehuda Granit ordered the husband to pay alimony of NIS 4,000 a month, plus NIS 2,500 in child support. In January 1998, the rabbinical court issued its own ruling, ordering the husband to pay only NIS 2,000 in alimony and child support, plus 60% of home-upkeep costs. In June, Tel Aviv District Court declined to hear the husband’s appeal of the Family Court’s decision, thus leaving two contradictory rulings in force.

In his ruling, Granit wrote that the Family Courts Law converted the rabbinical courts’ previous exclusive jurisdiction in alimony and child-support matters already being heard before it into concurrent jurisdiction with the family courts; which court has jurisdiction in a particular case must be decided on various grounds and not be determined merely by which court heard the matter first. The Courts Law (Consolidated Version), 5744-1984, states explicitly that whenever a district court has concurrent jurisdiction with another type of court, the former is competent to hear the case provided that a different court is not already hearing it and that it does not fall under the jurisdiction of a magistrate’s court. This provision was left out of the Family Courts Law. Granit understood this to mean that the family court has jurisdiction even if a suit has already been filed in a rabbinical court. He also maintained that the provision in the Family Courts Law stating that the law “does not derogate from the powers of the religious courts” was irrelevant in this case because the religious courts also maintain their jurisdiction, though no longer exclusively. Consequently, there is no reason for the family court not to hear the case.

Jurists regarded Granit’s ruling as revolutionary: Races to court would be a thing of the past. But it left a messy situation of unclear jurisdiction. Moreover, jurists were not entirely in agreement with Granit’s logic. In a 1985 decision (Umri v. Zu’abi), the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise, holding that turning exclusive jurisdiction into concurrent jurisdiction is a derogation of powers. According to that precedent, rabbinical courts would maintain their exclusive jurisdiction and family courts could not decide such cases. Prof. Menashe Shava of Tel Aviv University pointed out that Granit’s radical interpretation of the Family Courts Law would also deprive the rabbinical courts of their exclusive jurisdiction over actual divorces.1

Prompted by Granit’s decision—and instead of waiting for the courts to resolve the matter—on June 15 the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee endorsed an amendment to the Family Courts Law to bar family courts from adjudicating cases already being handled by a rabbinical court. MK Dedi Zucker (Meretz) appealed the committee action to the House Committee on the grounds that this was a new matter and therefore had to be introduced as a new bill, not attached to one that had already passed on first reading (the original bill involved transferring some of the authority over wills and inheritances from the courts to the Custodian General). The House Committee rejected Zucker’s appeal. The amendment passed into law in late June. Na’amat, the Israel Women’s Network, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and the Israel Religious Action Center petitioned the High Court against the amendment, claiming, as Zucker had done, that the committee had no right to add the stipulation. On Sept. 16, the Court convened and told the petitioners that their petition was a waste of time. “The Court does not sit here to repeal laws,” said Justice Dalia Dorner. “The Knesset does that.” The petition was withdrawn.

Sources: Israel Yearbook and Almanac 1999
1 Menashe Shava, “The Relationship between Jurisdiction of Family Court and Rabbinical Court,“ Hapraklit 44(1): 44-71 (Hebrew).