When a Jewish couple decides to marry, they become betrothed. An important part of the Jewish wedding is the signing of the Ketubah (wedding contract) before the wedding, though usually on the same day. The original Ketubah can be seen as outdated and many couples choose to write their own version that reflects their views and wishes, similar to vows. The traditional wording sets out the details of the couple and marriage as well as the obligations of both parties and what will happen if the couples divorce or in relation to death.
A Jewish wedding ceremony conducted in England or Wales will be recognised as legal in England and Wales so long as all civil requirements are complied with, after which a marriage certificate will be issued. Although there is no requirement for the marriage to take place in a registered building or in public, synagogues have been approved as a place where civil marriages can legally take place.
Whilst a Jewish marriage ceremony that complies with civil requirements is recognised both under UK law and Jewish rules, the Jewish and civil divorce processes are independent of one another. Jewish couples may need to complete both in order for their divorce to receive recognition both religiously and legally.
The document required for a Jewish divorce is known as a Get. A Jewish divorce occurs when this document, written on instruction of the husband, is delivered by the husband to his wife in the presence of a Rabbinical Court, known as a Beth Din. The Beth Din acts as a regulatory authority which confirms adherence to the rules and, therefore, effective dissolution of the marriage. For orthodox Jews, this should take place in front of an orthodox Beth Din - failure to do this will prevent remarriage under Jewish Law.
Unlike in English civil law, no grounds for divorce need to be ascertained to obtain a Get. A party can apply for, and obtain, a Get at any time once the parties have separated, including within a year of the marriage and prior to commencing civil divorce proceedings. While the parties can be cohabiting when applying for a Get, they must be living separately for it to be written and handed over.
Orthodox denominations require the consent of both the husband and wife to the giving and receiving of a Get. In Reform and Liberal Judaism, the Beth Din will regard the civil divorce as evidence that there is no reason to refuse awarding the Get and will grant it on its own authority. The thinking here being that an unjust law cannot be a Jewish law.
In certain Orthodox Jewish communities, the divorce can only be initiated by the husband. The term agunah (chained) relates to a woman who is trapped within her marriage because the husband refuses to initiate a Get. A woman’s only option in these instances will be to get a civil divorce. While this will enable her to remarry civilly, she will be unable to remarry under Jewish law in a synagogue. Further to this, any children resulting from a new relationship will be affected, deemed mamzer (illegitimate). Children that are mamzer will not able to marry anyone Jewish unless their partner, too, is a mamzer.
In some cases a husband can use the ancient laws to their advantage, by attempting to coerce his wife into, for example, agreeing to a smaller financial settlement, custody arrangements or property distribution before initiating the Get.
The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 allows Jewish spouses to obtain a Get where one was no cooperating. One spouse can apply for a delay to the decree absolute until both parties have declared to the court that the marriage has been dissolved in accordance with Jewish usages. The Get is not referred to in the legislation but the effect is that the court can delay granting the decree absolute if it would not be fair and reasonable to do so. In practice this means that the court has to be satisfied that the religious divorce has occurred before the civil one is granted.
Throughout the world the courts are becoming more sympathetic towards the wives of Get refusers and the UK courts have recently taken steps in that direction. In 2019, a Jewish woman obtained a Get after bringing a private prosecution against her husband who had denied this for almost ten years. The court considered this coercive or controlling behaviour, which constitutes a criminal offence. To avoid prosecution, the husband granted his ex-wife her Get, and her freedom.
The Beth Din seeks to assist and support these women. The wife must first file a complaint and the Beth Din will begin their investigations. The husband will be issued with a hazmana (summons), to appear before the Rabbinical court.
If the husband does not appear, the rabbinical court can publish a siruv, which is effectively a contempt of notice, together with a list of sanctions against him, known as a harhakot (severance from the community). The sanctions can be wide ranging, for example:
Being barred from communal events and prayers
Preventing others in the community from doing business with him
This is meant to apply social pressure, making everyday life extremely difficult for the offender. However, this is generally not an effective tool and many husbands simply ignore it.
The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.