Dr. Rachel Levmore
The Jewish Press.com
With International Agunah Day approaching (March 4, Taanit Esther), there is yet another very public story of an agunah fighting for her get.
Her name is Viviane Amsalem. Although Viviane is not married to a scion of a rabbinic family or a politically powerful figure, her case has made headlines. All around the world – not only the Jewish world – her dilemma is elucidated in detail, entering the minds and hearts of those who observe her travails.
Yes, Viviane can be considered a figment of siblings Ronit and Shlomi Alkabetz’s imaginations, but she is, in a very important sense, quite real. Viviane may exist only on the silver screen but she is every woman suing her husband for a get in every rabbinical court in the Jewish world.
The film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is being screened all over Israel, Europe, and North America. Produced by experienced filmmakers, it quickly made a splash by winning or being nominated for several movie industry awards.
Shining a spotlight on the difficult proceedings that take place within the Israeli rabbinical court system serves to illuminate a dark corner of Jewish society. Ronit Alkabetz’s presentation of the longsuffering wife, along with Simon Abkarian’s performance as the devout husband, ring true. The fact that there is no over-dramatization of what are in fact dire circumstances gives the story a compelling feel of everyday life. The story leaves its mark on viewers, who find their minds grappling with the facts as their hearts break with the suffering.
Viviane Amsalem is an ordinary woman. Her husband, Elisha, is an ordinary man – a regular at the neighborhood minyan. Although acquaintances cannot – or choose not to – discern any unusual strife between them, the discord runs so deep that Viviane leaves home.
Unable to communicate to the rabbinical court the causes underlying her desperate situation (although viewers immediately sense them), Viviane actually finds herself on trial. Instead of the judges taking her husband to task for refusing to give her a get, the tables are turned. She finds her motives examined, is refused assistance, and is told she must return to the man with whom she cannot possibly live.
This film was not made for the purpose of “rabbi bashing.” Nor is it an immodest movie. In fact, “GETT” is being screened for Israeli Rabbinical Court judges at their annual convention. It simply relates the fairly typical experience of a victim of get refusal, desperate to escape a crushing home life, trying to achieve her freedom and live normally.
Most significantly, it imparts through the victim’s eyes the procedures of a rabbinical court dealing with a recalcitrant husband. This actually is an opportunity for men, rabbis and laymen alike, to gain understanding of the impact their actions have on women seeking a divorce.
There is a message here for all audiences, including viewers unfamiliar with Jewish law. Abuse is not limited to physical forms. The crushing of the spirit is equivalent to the crushing of bones. Quiet manipulation of power within the parameters of the law undermines both law and society. Taking advantage of one human being’s dependence on another for freedom is the ultimate form of abuse.
It behooves us – and not only because we are about to mark International Agunah Day – to take note of this ordeal forced upon so many ordinary women.
Rachel Levmore (Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University) is a rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency, and author of “Min’ee Einayich Medim’a” on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.