In an earlier entry, I've discussed some of the oddities of the Israeli secular court system. I'd like in this entry to touch briefly upon a serious problem in the Israeli religious court system that is not widely discussed. I'm not going to discuss the weird way the religious courts interact with the secular courts and I'm not going to discuss the serious problems with having a theocracy. What I am going to discuss is an issue I only recently came across: there is close to no weight of precedent on the religious courts.
Here is an example given recently by Rabbi Chayim Tobasky at a talk at Boston University.
Consider the following hypothetical: A man and woman who get married, have a kid and then get divorced. She goes to a beit din (religious court) for child support. The court mandates some fraction of his income go to child support (say 60%). Now, the man remarries and has three kids with the new wife. She can go back to the beit din or to another beit din and get the arrangement reapportioned so that all kids can get at least the same amount from the father. But there's one snag: contractually obligated debts take precedence over child support. That means, for example, if the man had an obligation to pay off some debt accrued jointly with the first wife, that money could not be readjusted for the second. This leads to the following question: suppose that the husband and the first wife agreed that he pay the 60% for child support as part of the divorce settlement rather than as mandated by a beit din. Does this count as child support or as a debt? Apparently, every court in Israel rules that such a contract does not count as child support except the beit din in Rechovot. The Rechovot court has been repeatedly overruled and it continues to rule the same way, knowing that, if the case is appealed, it will be overruled.
Regardless of what one thinks of the religious court system in Israel, this is no way to run a judicial system. It is at best inefficient. It needlessly turns legal disputes into even more of chess games, and places unfair burdens on people with few resources.
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