by Rabbi Ariel Abel
Newspapers recently carried the story of Joy Williams, a 69-year-old grandmother, who co-habited with her partner, Norman Martin. Mr Martin recently died, and his ex-wife, who never accepted the divorce he gave her, is now claiming the bungalow that Joy calls home. What does the Torah say about this?
The Torah recognises divorce as a clean cut between two individuals no longer suitable to live together. If a woman refuses to accept a Get, the man effectively becomes “chained” to her. In common law, a court can declare an end to the marriage. In Jewish law, only the man is allowed to authorise the divorce. However, in practice, Beth Din courts preside inactively over many “unclaimed” Get bills of divorce which the wife ought to receive but refuses to do so, often to hold out for an even better deal than the courts will agree to, or just out of spite. Equity ought to trump the law in these cases; or else the law should change.
A spousal relationship in Jewish law is based on contract. All financial relationships between the spouses, beyond provision for conjugal rights and subsistence for a limited period where appropriate, ceases when they part company. Clearly, Mrs Williams would have benefited from a will being drawn up. Yet it is clearly inequitable that intestacy rules ignore the fact she has lived in a partnership which the owner of the bungalow has clearly willed. A trust should arise to protect Joy from the vicissitudes of life, particularly where a prolonged period of cohabitation is evidence of Norman’s intention, through his conduct, to benefit her.
The application of Jewish law has a lot to learn from situations like this. Second only to the agunah situation, the “estranged wife” is sometimes no more than a hanger-on who simply refuses to go. Refusal to accept a Get can, and invariably does hold men hostage to a dead marriage and worse, to a dead financial partnership. I have listened to the sorry story of a Jew who was all set to remarry in synagogue, only to find that his ex-wife, after the Get was delivered to the Beth Din and post-decree absolute, made a financial demand that was both impossible to carry out for practical reasons and was legally ultra-vires. The result was that the religious ceremony was called off.
The Beth Din did not declare him permitted to remarry, even though he had done everything correctly and delivered a Get. He was – and is – barred from remarrying in shul and had to content himself with a civil divorce.
• Ariel Abel is the fomer rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue. He has He has more than 20 years experience in religious communities and interfaith