Women, Religious Law and Religious Courts in Israel: The Jewish Case

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In 1987, after thirty years of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Bavli, two Jewish Israeli citizens, received a divorce decree from a regional rabbinical court - the only institution authorized to grant divorces to Jewish couples in Israel. The rabbinical court held exclusive jurisdiction with regard to ancillary issues - alimony and division of assets ¿ since the husband was first to apply to that court. His choice of the rabbinical court over civil courts, which have concurrent jurisdiction on monetary matters arising from divorce, was not accidental. In his case, as in others, the religious court applied its own rules, which followed religious edicts, and denied the wife half of the marital property. Instead, a flat sum was awarded. The wife could have gained access to the civil court only if she had preceded her husband and won the jurisdiction race for division of assets. Mrs. Bavli's application against this ruling, lodged before the High Court of Justice at the Supreme Court of Israel, resulted in a remedy - and a clear ruling, after several decades of state independence, that religious courts should follow Israeli civil law in its entirety. This included a 1951 statute that enshrined equality between the sexes, a statute that was not, apparently, applied earlier by the religious courts. But the intrinsic tension between state-authorized religious courts, intent on applying religious law, and the civil legal system is still very much a feature of Israeli society. This article examines this tension and its implications for the status of women. It is thus a case study of the possible outcome of institutional autonomy of religious institutions in a state's framework.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)57-76
Number of pages19
JournalRetfaerd (Scandinavian Journal of Social Sciences)
StatePublished - 7 Nov 2006


  • Law and Religion
  • Family Law
  • Religion and State


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