Did you know that even here in Maryland in the year 2011 under orthodox Jewish law, a civil divorce does not dissolve the marriage?

Only a religious divorce officially dissolves the marriage. Under orthodox Judaism, in order for a woman to remarry, she must obtain a “get”  from her husband to completely dissolve the marriage, and to remarry another orthodox Jew. Only the husband has the power to grant or withhold a “get.” the rabbinic authorities cannot force the husband to grant a woman a get.

Growing up in Rockville, Maryland, I went to Hebrew school 3 days a week. I pretty much hated Hebrew school, and did not learn how to speak Hebrew very well (I can read it though). I must not have been paying attention when they taught us about the law of orthodox Judaism. Luckily, I have now been educated about Jewish Law as a result of Friday’s opinion from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Lang v. Levi (The opinion was written by Judge Zarnoch).

The opinion delves into fascinating issues of rabbinical law, Beth Din, and how rabbinical law works alongside the civil law in Maryland domestic relations proceedings.

The nutshell version is this–An orthodox Jewish couple from Montgomery County, Maryland got separated and divorced. To make sure that the man did not improperly withhold a get, they had the foresight to have a prenuptial agreement providing that the woman would receive $100 a day from the time they no longer lived together until the time the husband granted a “get.” they also had an arbitration agreement providing that the Beth Din (Jewish rabbinical Court) would decide issues regarding the prenuptial agreement. The woman tried to claim $108,000.00 as her entitlement under the prenuptial agreement.

The rabbinical court rejected her request and gave her only $10,200.00. The husband and wife both appealed the $10,200.00 award to the higher level rabbinical court known as the Av Beth Din (she wanted more money, and he didn’t want to pay the $10,200). The supreme rabbinical court (Av Beth Dim) eliminated the $10,200.00 award to the woman, and decided that she should not get anything because the husband offered a timely get. Basically the rabbis reasoned that the purpose of the $100/ day fine provision was to make sure that the man gave the woman a timely get. In this case, Mr. Levi gave his ex-wife a timely get and there was no reason under Jewish law to enforce the provision of the prenuptial agreement providing for the $100/day penalty.

Ms. Lang, the wife, appealed to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County Maryland attempting to vacate the decision of the rabbinical court and enforce the contract. She also challenged the arbitration provision of the prenuptial agreement.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the decision of the rabbinical court and basically explained that a Maryland Court is forbidden from delving into interpretations of religious dogma and religious law.

This opinion is worth reading for anyone interested in learning about orthodox Judaism’s rabbinical court. I must say that I find it troubling that in 2011 a woman could be stuck in a marriage just because an orthodox Jewish man does not want to give her a get. This just does not seem right to me. Apparently, in New York when a couple gets divorced the divorcing couple must affirm to the Court that steps have been taken to obtain a get thereby removing any religious barriers to marriage. In Maryland similar legislation was proposed but it did not pass.