October 2013 - Getting a Get: Easier Than Ungetting the Get You Got

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I never did much family law when I was a trial judge. Turns out, you deny one divorce—just one—they never send you another one.

I would happily have done a turn on the Family Law Panel, but I think my idea that divorcing couples should have to donate all their shoes to the poor and go barefoot for thirty days put some people off.

Nonetheless, I have great respect for family law practitioners. I think about them the same way I think about cops and oncologists and people who take care of the elderly—people with absurdly difficult jobs that seem to me to be all challenge and little reward. At the risk of offending most of my readership,1 I think, on any given day, the folks negotiating child custody agreements are working on something more important than what the rest of us are doing.

So I think it’s profoundly important that a nation’s family law system function at least as well as its dog licensing and online book purchasing systems. That does not appear to be the case in Israel.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “[A] Jewish divorce is not final in Israel until men deliver hand-written 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.”

I’m sorry; that just doesn’t sound to me like a twenty-first century approach to family law. It sounds a lot like the kind of idea that kept me off the Family Law Panel.

And if one of the spouses objects, there is no divorce. No get to tear into pieces. Ever.

This is disappointing on so many levels.

First, the law applies only to divorces of Jews. Catholics, Presbyterians, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses—they can get a divorce any time they want one. With or without consent. Israel does not care.

I don’t know; that just seems vaguely dismissive and superior to me. I expected more egalitarianism from Israel.

Second, this offends my sense of Israeli technological superiority. I’ve always assumed the Israelis were among the most technologically and organizationally advanced cultures on the planet. They turned three sand dunes and a quart of motor oil into a nation, their Technicon is a marvel of scientific cerebration, and the Mossad has apparently mastered invisibility, judging by the number of things they are given credit or blame for every day.

But now I find out the Israelis are trying to file things after they have been torn up. Even we aren’t that crazy, and we elected Congress.

Good luck finding Mrs. Rabinowitz’s get online if it’s been torn up before filing. Online, heck—good luck tracking down a usable hard copy in the Registrar’s Office: “Hey, I found that get you were looking for, but a coupla pieces seem to be missing. Are you sure the rabbi collected all of them? That wasn’t one of those really windy days, was it?”

Third, having been a member at one time or another of most major Christian denominations,2 I’ve always given my Jewish friends credit for a lot more religious sense than we Christians have. Maybe it’s just that your own family always seems to have more embarrassing Uncle Jubals and Great-Grandpa Brennemans than your neighbor’s family, but I’ve always admired the rationality and tolerance of Judaism.

Israeli divorce pretty much shoots that to hell.3

The Times story is about an Israeli woman who filed for divorce when her daughter was a baby. She is still waiting for it. The daughter is now thirty-six.

Yep, thirty-six. Think about that the next time you’re trying to get an OSC re contempt heard.

Since spousal consent is a requirement in Israel, if the spouse doesn’t consent—ever—you don’t get a divorce ... ever.

Imagine instituting that system here in the United States of Astonishing. Contentious divorces are as common as cats here.4 How bad would it get if we gave unhappy spouses the nuclear option: Just say no?

We’d have chaos. People would stop going to Raoul Felder and Sorrell Trope and start calling in Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. The Crips and Bloods would stop dealing dope and go into the business of “divorce arrangement.”

Israelis are apparently better at the whole long-suffering thing than we are. In addition to the woman described in the Times (whose thirty-six-year-old daughter insists she will never get married), we’re told there are “hundreds, perhaps thousands of Israeli women caught in legal and social limbo” because of Israeli divorce laws.5 But there is no indication of widespread self-help of the kind I would expect here.

Perhaps that’s because the Israeli government is not completely tone-deaf. Even if they aren’t hearing the entire scale, they are picking up a few of the higher notes. They’ve given the rabinnical courts that handle divorce the power to order men to consent.

And they’ve hired former Mossad members to track down missing spouses who refuse consent. They’ve also worked with “women’s groups around the world to shame men by banning them from the local synagogue or protesting at their homes.” They’ve even suspended driver’s licenses of stubborn spouses, seized their bank accounts, and prevented travel abroad.

But many husbands leave the country without giving consent. That puts them largely beyond the reach of the rabbinical courts—unless they’re both stubborn and stupid.6

How stubborn and stupid would you have to be? “In April, a recalcitrant husband who had moved to the United States and returned to Israel on vacation was shocked to find himself being arrested, while sipping wine with his girlfriend in a Jerusalem bar, for violating the court’s order to consent.”

That man signed the papers after a night in jail. And I imagine it put something of a crimp in his ... well, his plans for the vacation with his girlfriend.

But others choose to go to jail. One has been in jail ten years rather than consent to a divorce. Many of you have had clients like this, but he may be the record-holder.

Still others resort to a loophole in the law. Remember when I said that Israeli law was disappointing on “so many levels”?7 Well, here comes the last and most-disappointing level.

While women who cannot get a divorce are barred from remarriage—and their children if they do remarry will be legally disadvantaged—men can remarry if they can get a hundred rabbis to say it’s okay.

Honest, I’m not making this up. In Israel, if you want to be a bigamist and can get a hundred other guys to say it’s okay, you can do it.

Okay, this is hyperbole. The “guys” have to be rabbis. You can’t just wander into a bar at half-time, order a coupla pitchers, and walk out with a hundred signatures on your petition.

But even expressed fairly, doesn’t a rule like that undermine your faith in the system? What kind of system has guys going door-to-door trying to get rabbinical approval for their remarriage without a divorce?

Knock, knock. “Rabbi Cohen, are you home?”

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Rabbi Cohen, I’m still trying to get a divorce. I’ve got ninety-nine signatures and I’m here to ask you to reconsider my petition. Can I please come in for an hour or two and tell you just how terrible my wife is?”

“No ... just slide it under the door and I’ll sign it. But you’ll owe me a beer come half-time.”

I don’t know. The more I read about divorce in Israel, the better crazy Uncle Jubal looks to me.

(1) A number fast approaching two digits, I’m told.
(2) I usually describe myself as a “generic Christian.” But I’m struggling now with whether that slanders all denominations rather than the one to which I presently belong. Let me just say right now that no matter what church I go to on a given day, it would be unfair to judge their beliefs by my membership. As near as I can determine, I am the only member of my religion.
(3) Hell: Another theological concept I think the Jews have a better handle on than Christians. But that’s another column.
(4) “Your wife also wants you to eat dirt and die, Mr. Davis, but I think she’ll come off that demand if we give her the dog and the boat.”
(5) The Times acknowledges that the law applies equally to both genders and there are men in the same position, but come on, guys—we know who’s getting the short end of the stick on most of these. And besides, there’s a loophole for men. Keep reading, you won’t believe it.
(6) Such a rare combination in my gender.
(7) That was Paragraph Eight for those of you not keeping score at home.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.