A Suggested Antenuptial Agreement: A Proposal in Wake of Avitzur
Some thirty years ago, the Conservative movement, through its
Rabbinical Assembly of America, sought to resolve this modern-day
agunah problem by incorporating into the ketubah executed in
conjunction with the marriage ceremony a clause which would have
the effect of compelling the parties to seek a get upon the
breakdown of their marriage. The following is the English-language
text of the Conservative amendment to the ketubah:
Halachic authorities vigorously opposed this innovation on a number of grounds:
There were -- and indeed still are-many serious question regarding the enforceability of this agreement in civil courts. Nevertheless, a recent decision of the New York Court of Appeals in Avitzur V. Avitzur7 serves to endow this document with some legal authority. Despite the halakhic and legal questions which remain, the Avitzur decision points the way to the crafting of an agreement which poses no halakhic difficulty and which is enforceable in civil courts.
Avitzur represents the first occasion on which the highest court of any state has acted on a matter pertaining to the execution of a get. If proper procedures are implemented, this decision will make it easier to force a recalcitrant husband to grant a religious divorce in accordance with Jewish law. In order to assess the implications of this recent decision of the New York Court of Appeals, it is necessary to bear in mind the facts of the case.
Susan and Boaz Avitzur were married in May 1966. The ceremony was performed by a Conservative clergyman who used a ketubah in which the earlier-cited clause was incorporated. The Avitzurs obtained a civil divorce in 1978. Susan Avitzur then summoned Boaz to appear before the Beth Din named in their ketubah pursuant to the provisions of their agreement recognizing that body as having authority to counsel the couple in matters pertaining to their marriage. Boaz Avitzur refused to comply. Thereupon Susan instituted legal proceedings designed to compel Boaz to appear before the Beth Din. Boaz requested the court to dismiss the complaint, arguing that for the court to order him to appear before the Beth Din would involve the civil court in an impermissible consideration of a purely religious matter.
The Supreme Court, which in New York is a court of original jurisdiction, ruled in favor of Susan.8 It stated that ordering Boaz to appear before a Beth Din on the basis of his own contractual agreement involves no judicial entanglement in any doctrinal issue. Boaz, however, argued that, for various reasons, even on the basis of the terms of the ketubah as applied to his particular situation, he was not obligated to appear before the Beth Din. The Supreme Court accepted Boaz' contention that his obligations under the ketubah were not unequivocal and therefore ordered a plenary trial in order to resolve those questions. (Boaz argued that the agreement which he signed obliged him to appear when summoned by the Beth Din itself, but not when such a demand was made only by his wife. Moreover, he contended that since his wife did not heed an earlier demand on his part to appear before the Beth Din, he was relieved of any further obligation.)
The trial never took place. Boaz appealed the decision of the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division overruled the lower court's ruling, declaring that the ketubah is a "liturgical agreement" which has no standing in civil law.9 That finding has now been reversed by the Court of Appeals in a four to three decision. The legal effect of such reversal is that the original order of the Supreme Court requiring a plenary trial remains in effect. In its original ruling the Supreme Court declared that Boaz was entitled to a trial In order to determine upon the facts of that particular case whether he is indeed obligated to appear before the Beth Din.
Although the order of the Supreme Court required the parties to appear before the Conservative Beth Din, virtually all Orthodox rabbinic and communal organizations joined in a brief as "friends of the court" urging that, as a matter of law, the order be upheld. They did so because the principles of law involved are of concern to the entire Jewish community.
The only issue before the Court of Appeals was whether a person might be compelled to appear before a Beth Din on the basis of an undertaking executed as part of a ketubah. To this question the highest court of the State of New York answered with an emphatic "Yes!" The question of enforcing an order of the Beth Din directing the husband to execute a get was not before the court. However, although the matter is not entirely resolved, on the basis of the language of the Avitzur decision there is reason to assume that a decision of the Beth Din ordering the husband to execute a get would also be enforceable in civil courts.
In issuing this decision the Court of Appeals clearly recognized that the matter before the Court was not an order to execute a get but an action to enforce an undertaking to submit the matter to arbitration. Thus the court declared that:
The Court of Appeals recognized that a ketubah is indeed a contract between the bride and the groom entitled to the same dignity and standing as any other civil contract. Antenuptial agreements to refer disputes associated with the marital relationship to arbitration are routinely upheld by the courts. The agreement to appear before a Beth Din was recognized by the court as an agreement to arbitrate disputes before a specific body. The court also acknowledged that in agreeing to submit their disputes to a Beth Din the parties recognized that the Beth Din would apply provisions of Jewish law in rendering a decision. The Court of Appeals found this to be entirely acceptable and upheld the right "to arbitrate a dispute in accordance with the law and tradition chosen by the parties."
It must be emphasized that the Court of Appeals was not asked to rule that in signing a ketubah the husband obligates himself to execute a get whenever an irreparable breakdown of a marriage occurs (as did a Canadian court in Morris vs. Morris)12 or even when required by Jewish law (e.g., in cases of adultery, as did a New York court in Stern vs. Stern13 and a New Jersey court in Minkin vs. Minkin).14 In light of the narrow majority in Avitzur it is unlikely-but not impossible-that the same court would construe the traditional ketubah used by Orthodox Jews, which does not contain an explicit arbitration clause, as requiring the parties to submit to the jurisdiction of a Beth Din for the purpose of adjudicating a claim for the execution of a get. But the Avitzur decision does mean that when a separate document is executed at the time of a wedding explicitly binding the parties to appear before a particular Beth Din upon dissolution of the marriage by civil divorce, such an agreement would be enforced by the courts and appearance before the Beth Din could be compelled.
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