Monday, September 27, 2010

High Court reveals anonymous donor paid men to grant bills of divorce

Haaretz article "High Court reveals anonymous donor paid men to grant bills of divorce" (September 21st, 2010) notes a curious and uneconomic practice in Israel. Female Jews married in Israel are not allowed to divorce men without their permission, but instead must obtain a "get." This distinction carries legal and not just religious consequences because there is no civil marriage in Israel, but only religious marriages (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim). Because men hold their wives "hostage," anonymous donors give money to the divorcing body, the Chief Rabbinate, to bribe the men to provide a get.
The rabbinical courts' administration already has an arrangement to pay men who refuse to divorce their wives in certain cases, as an incentive to grant the divorce. The money is budgeted by the state. However, the verdict shows that in 2004-2005 an anonymous donor gave the rabbinical courts money to pay off dozens of men and even a few women, to divorce their spouses.

The unintended consequences of paying off spouses are threefold. First, in the long run it's not clear that bribes to Jewish men to divorce their wives will change the equilibrium number of "trapped" wives. Potential wives will simply be free to choose a lower threshold of men to marry (private donors subsidize their gamble). Second, if they're monetary expected value maximizers it's in the interest of men to raise their asking price for a divorce by the amount the Rabbinical Court is willing to bribe them. Otherwise, they will raise their asking amount, though not necessarily by the exact amount. In this respect any donation may simply be a pure transfer to husbands without any change in outcome, and private donors subsidize "kidnapping" husbands. Third, it takes away motivation for any reform of Rabbinical Courts (such as allowing civil marriage or intermarriage in Israel) by reducing the benefit of a complementary good. That is, legal reform of Rabbinical power presumably is a bundled good--if bribes are successful, it reduces the benefit of reform.

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