Legal Ground: Love, Law and ‘Ruth‘

How is the beautiful, elegiac, Book of Ruth that we are going to be reading on Shavuot impacted by the dryness and impersonality of the law? On the face of it, the touching love story between not-so-young people (she was a already a widow and he was an older man) among the sheaves of wheat in the pastoral atmosphere of ancient Judea seems to have little to do with the technical detachment associated with legal matters But Ruth has threads of legal import running throughout the poetic narrative.

In fact, right at the outset there is a statement about the pervasive rule of law.

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Look at the opening: “Those were the days when the Judges judged.” Thus, in the very first words the tone is set and tells us that this was a society – a pre-Davidic Iron Age agricultural society – where the social order was defined by rules of civilized behavior.

The Book of Ruth discusses modes of inheritance, the inalienable rights relating to ownership of land, levirate marriages and duties to widows and the poor.

But the most salient part of the short book and one that has a direct bearing us living in modern Israel is how love can bring together people of totally disparate backgrounds – in fact, completely opposing backgrounds – Boaz being an aristocratic Israelite and Ruth being a Moabite.

Even in those far-off days there was freedom of movement and immigration. Naomi and Elimelech fled the famine; they simply walked across the river to Moab, which today is in the area of Jordan. Then, after the tragedies that struck them in that country, they picked up and returned to Naomi’s homeland.

So Ruth shows us that the newcomer is often to be welcomed and that the joining of the local and the foreign can bring astonishing results, such as the creation of a royal dynasty for the Jewish people.

But there are laws and rules that govern such fusion.

Boaz could not have married Ruth unless she was a convert. Once a convert, she was welcomed and indeed honored.

But what are the rules if love brings two people together who, unlike Ruth, cannot in truth say to each other: “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

Israel does not have a provision for people of differing religions marrying each other.

Israel is not unique. For example, Lebanon and Egypt do not enable civil marriage, nor do many other Middle Eastern countries, rooted as they are in Ottoman law.

So where do people get married if they are unable to do so in Israel? They marry abroad.

The numbers are telling. Between August 2011 and 2012, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 20,000 Israeli couples got married outside of Israel, many of them in Cyprus These civil marriages are registered by the Interior Ministry for the purpose of spousal rights.

But things get more tangled when the couple returns to live in Israel and the relationship founders.

How do you get civilly divorced in a country in which marriage and divorce are regulated by religious courts? The religious authorities, whether the rabbinic or the Sharia courts or the recognized Christian churches, have no jurisdiction over mixed-faith couples.

So which authority can rule that the couple are divorced? And how does one get out of a mixed-faith marriage if things go wrong? In Israel, that authority is given to the Family Law Court, which takes a secular view of the mixed marriage.

How does this work? If both parties agree to part, application is made by both parties to the Family Law Court.

To ascertain whether the secular family court is not impinging on the jurisdiction of a religious court, the deputy president will consult with the applicable religious courts before ruling on the application.

If there is no consensus between the parties, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether the marriage has broken down, according to a variety of parameters, and rule accordingly.

How the court reaches such a decision is too lengthy to be dealt with in this short article, but the Israeli civil court can declare the marriage dissolved.

So did how we get from the inspiring love story of Ruth and Boaz to the question of divorce.

The Jewish view, allowing divorces, is simple and pragmatic: Love and marriage may be the highest values, and divorce is a tragedy. But a greater tragedy is staying in an unhappy marriage.

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Dr. Haim Katz is senior partner in a law firm based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sam Katz is also a partner. Both have written books on inheritance law, family law and real estate as well as being active in general civil litigation.