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 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.
The rabbis can order a reluctant spouse, usually a man, 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, lied about his sexuality 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. A report in April by the Israeli religious rights group Hiddush ranked Israel alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of marriage freedom.
"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 get 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% 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, in an effort to make the court more sensitive to women's needs.
The court rabbis insist that 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.
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 divorce order. After a night in jail, he signed the papers.
"By the morning they are begging to give the divorce," Maimon said, adding that 10 men are currently in prison. "In ancient times, you could beat a divorce out of a man, but we can't do that today under Israeli law."
Women also have the ability to block divorces. But activists say there is a loophole for men — getting 100 rabbis to say it's OK for him to remarry — and the burden of divorce denial falls much heavier on women.
Activists estimate that about 1 in 5 women who seek a divorce — or about 3,400 women a year — is denied by her husband. Many cases are settled, but others drag on for years or decades in a process women say is skewed against them.
The biggest concern is a religious law that says if a woman has children with another man before divorce is granted, those children and their descendants will be deemed illegitimate and not allowed to marry in Israel under current law. The law does not apply to men.
Tessler, who first filed for divorce in 1977, says she's given up on starting a new family. She had a 15-year relationship with another man, but he left after she refused to have children because they'd be "branded a bastard."
But she still wants a divorce to prevent her husband from collecting her pension after she dies, which she said would be the final injustice. Her husband could not be reached for comment.
Her daughter has been in a long-term relationship and wants children. But there are no plans for a wedding and Tessler isn't surprised.
"She doesn't want to hear the word 'marriage,'" said Tessler, who lives with her two dogs north of Tel Aviv. "You shouldn't need a piece of paper to be happy. I had that piece of paper and it gave me nothing but trouble my entire life."