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Avitzur v. Avitzur

Avitzur v. Avitzur, 58 N.Y.2d 108; 445 N.E.2d 136; 459 N.Y.S.2d 572 (1983) Court: Court of Appeals of New York

Husband and Wife were married in 1966 in a Jewish marriage ceremony in the U.S

Husband and Wife were married in 1966 in a Jewish marriage ceremony in the U.S.. Prior to the ceremony, both parties signed a “ketubah,” in which the Wife and Husband expressed willingness to live according to the standards of the Jewish law of marriage and recognized the authority of the “Beth Din” (Rabinical tribunal). In 1978, the couple was granted a civil divorce. According to Jewish law, the Wife is not considered divorced and may not remarry until a “Get” (Jewish divorce decree) is granted. To receive a “Get,” both Husband and Wife must appear before a Beth Din.  The Husband refused to appear and so, prevented the Wife from obtaining a religious divorce. The Wife then filed a suit asking for an order compelling the Husband to appear before the Beth Din. The Husband filed for a motion to dismiss the Wife’s complaint. The trial court denied the motion, but the appellate division granted the husband’s motion to dismiss. The appellate court held that the ketubah being a religious agreement, the State had no interest in the parties’ martial status after it had granted a civil divorce.

The Wife appealed the appellate court’s decision.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division. The court stated that the Wife was not requesting the enforcement of a solely religious practice, but of an agreement to appear before and accept the decision of a designated tribunal. Referring disputes to a nonjudicial forum is an objective, well-established principle of secular contract law that is neutral from religious doctrines. Even though the agreement was part of a religious ceremony, the Wife is requesting for the court to compel the Husband to carry out a secular obligation that he bound himself to when he signed the ketubah. The Husband’s motion to dismiss the Wife’s complaint was denied.
Note: The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and writ of certiorari was denied.

Note: Cited in New York case, Aziz v. Aziz, 488 N.Y.S.2d 123 at 124 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1985), and in New Jersey case, Odatalla v. Odatalla, 810 A.2d 93 (2002), in support of the enforceability of the secular terms of a document that was a part of a religious ceremony.

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