JERUSALEM 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 hands of the women. A rabbi tears the document into pieces, which are then filed for record-keeping.
The rabbis can order a reluctant spouse 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 or molested their children.
Exploiting what amounts to veto power over a divorce, some men demand financial payoffs from the court. Others pressure wives to pay them, give up their homes, forgo child support or waive custody rights.
Women's rights advocates are pushing Israel's coalition government, the first in decades that does not include ultra-Orthodox parties, to pass reforms.
"When it comes to matters of divorce, Israel is a theocracy," said Batya Kahana-Dror, executive director of Mavoi Satum, a legal group devoted to helping women obtain divorces.
In Israel, there is no civil marriage, so Jews must wed in accordance with the rabbinate's Orthodox customs. Many opt for civil ceremonies abroad, which over the years have become legally recognized in Israel. But while the law has bent to permit different ways into marriage, there is still only one way out: the religious court.
To address the problem of refusal, the parliament in 1995 gave the rabbinical court expanded legal power to crack down on stubborn spouses by suspending driver's licenses, seizing bank accounts, preventing travel abroad and even imprisoning those who don't comply with an order to grant a divorce. One man has spent more than 10 years in jail.
Women's groups say the 1995 law hasn't made much difference because the court uses sanctions in less than 2 percent of cases. They recently pushed through a bill to include female members for the first time on the panel that appoints the court's rabbis.
The court rabbis insist they are trying to help.
"We are extremely sensitive to the situation in which a woman may be left without a divorce and go to great lengths to resolve it," said Eli Maimon, a rabbi assigned to assisting the wives.
The court hires former members of the country's spy agency to find missing husbands, posts a "most wanted" list on its website, and works with rabbis and women's groups around the world to shame men by banning them from the local synagogue or protesting at their homes.