First, we want to thank Agunah and Her Get for all the wonderful services they provide for Agunos throughout Canada, U.S.A and the world. Your work is needed in Jewish Communities everywhere. May Hashem bless everyone involved in your organization, with long life, health, nachas and Simchos in your families.
Know that the Monsey, Lakewood and Flatbush Jewish communities support all you are doing. It is unbelievable how many people want to help. You have tapped into a groundswell of support that has been waiting to find a way in which to channel their pent up frustration with how Agunos are being treated. Kol Hakavod and may you go from strength to strength.
We have known Nechama Esther for many years.
We went to school together in Monsey, New York, lived together in Lakewood, New Jersey and are neighbors in the Jewish community of Flatbush (Brooklyn, New York). Some of our kids attend the same school as Nechama Esther’s children. We have always viewed Nechama Esther as a frum woman who conducts herself according to Orthodox Jewish law we all adhere to.
We have sympathy for the terrible situation she is in.
We can not understand why, since her marriage is over, she should not be granted a Get as expeditiously as possible in a Jewish Court of Law, a Beis Din, as this is what is expected by those who adhere to Orthodox Jewish law. If Nechama Esther is not given her Get, she is called, in Orthodox Jewish law, an Agunah (chained), which means she is forever chained until such time Nechama Esther is given a Get.
In addition, by Nechama Esther not being given her Get, she is not allowed to move on with her life and have closure. She can not date, or, if she so desires, remarry. It is cruel, inhumane, and against Orthodox Jewish law to withhold a Get.
Historically, in every instance in a couple’s life where a Get is withheld, it is either to maintain control over the Agunah, or to use it as a negotiating tool, which ends up with demands of exorbitant, biased, and unfair settlement agreements which would never stand up in a secular court on its own merit.
We have, unfortunately, witnessed too many situations where either one of the above instances was the case.
Please daven for Nechama Esther bas Chava Shira, that she may have a yeshua and be given her Get immediately.
Leah T. Chavie M. Pessy B. Chaya K. Deena K. Nechama T. Gitel R. Leeba K. Chani K. Etti K. Rivka R. Miriam A. Miriam E. Chaviva S.
representing the many friends of Nechama Esther Wasserman, who are behind this letter.
If any readers of the above letter would like to assist this Agunah in receiving her Get and require more detailed information, please send an email to the website.
Israeli rabbinical courts granted authority to rule in cases of ‘chained wives’ even if neither spouse is an Israeli citizen.
For the first time in its history, the State of Israel will provide a solution for Agunot (women who are unable to remarry because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce), as well as men who find themselves in a similar situation, even if they are not Israeli citizens. Today, the Israeli government issued a memorandum which grants the rabbinical courts international authority over cases of Agunot.
Another issue which was dealt with is the issue of Jewish men and women, mostly from the former Soviet Union, whose marriage documents have been lost overseas or whose Jewish identity cannot be confirmed.
Until now, state religious courts were authorized to deal only with cases of Agunot in which at least one spouse is a citizen or resident of the state. As a result, the state has been unable to answer requests from Agunot living abroad, or to apply sanctions against the recalcitrant husband.
The Conference of European Rabbis, headed by Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, turned to the Israeli rabbinical courts to find solutions for these Agunot.
The explanatory notes of the memorandum state that “The Conference of European Rabbis and other parties have raised the issue of the difficulties faced in situations where husbands from couples from around the world who have been married according to Torah law refrain from divorcing their wives, leaving them as Agunot without the possibility of remarrying. In some cases they even ignore the rulings of the local court in the absence of jurisdiction on the part of the local court to force the husband to divorce and to impose sanctions on him in order to grant a Get to his wife.”
The notes continued: “The centrality of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state and its importance in the life of Jews around the world, in contrast to the inability of Jewish women around the world to find a solution to the problems of refusal of divorce, justifies granting this authority to the Rabbinical Court in Israel.”
Religious Services Minister Rabbi David Azoulay (Shas) praised the move.
“I congratulate the Rabbinical Courts, which are working intensively and uncompromisingly to find a remedy for the plight of the Agunot by expanding the jurisdiction of the rabbinic courts, even if the parties are not citizens of the state. The State of Israel is a Jewish State and as such it should provide relief to every Jew, wherever they may be and anywhere in the world.”
A recent conference call provided anonymous listeners with answers to the delicate question “Does the Mizbeach Cry When an Abusive Marriage Ends?”
The call was co-hosted by the Sholom Bayis Taskforce, Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and the Adai Ad organization.
Yiddishkeit emphasizes the importance of intact families and encourages working on the marriage. Yet, there are some people in terribly abusive marriages for which divorce is the only option, but it is always the last resort after all else has been tried.
None of these people make this decision lightly. Mrs. Devora Krasnianski, organizer and moderator of the call, explained the inspiration behind this call.
“I’ve spoken to several women who lamented that they stayed for years in their intolerable marriage because people told them that the Torah frowns on divorce and the Mizbeach cries. It is time that people truly understand that piece of Gemara and the Torah’s view on divorce, in certain circumstances. Based on the numbers of participants on the call – over 300 – we see that this topic is on the mind of many.”
On this conference call, renowned teacher Rabbi YY Jacobson shed much light on the issue of divorce in Judaism. After the call, many listeners reached out with gratitude for Rabbi Jacobson’s strong words of validation of their plight, clarity into the Torah’s views, and practical advice.
We try to do anything to sustain a marriage. Divorce is not an option that we embrace initially or easily. Judaism is opposed to creating a culture of divorce. Divorce is sad. It is like an amputation. You do not do it unless there is no other option. Sometimes it is necessary to save the life. The same Torah that tells us the value of a marriage also legislates divorce. Is divorce immoral? Absolutely not! Sometimes it is the most moral thing you can do for yourself and your children.
Rabbi Jacobson stressed: It is very unfair and unjust to make a man or woman in an abusive marriage feel guilty that their thoughts about leaving the marriage are against Torah. When living with fear and walking on eggshells all the time, we are a dealing with a serious situation. You can’t tell someone to just endure it. If you don’t know what people are going through, don’t give advice. Just be quiet! Be empathetic. Be understanding.
With real empathy to the plight of these abused women and with disgust for the vindictiveness of the abuser, Rabbi Jacobson cried about the disgrace that so many people in our communities cover up for abusers. When a woman is suffering, it should be the pain of the entire Jewish people. Shame on all people who cover up for perpetrators and abusers. They allow victims to suffer for years. If he is cruel to his wife, people should go over to him in Shul and call him out on it. He shouldn’t be getting aliyahs and other honors.
“It is one thing to disagree with your spouse. It is one think to get into a fight with your husband or wife. But inhumane cruelty? This must never be tolerated,” Jacobson said.
Throughout the talk, Rabbi Jacobson described what abuse really is. Being in an abusive relationship means constant fear, misery, and agony in the relationship. There’s no happiness in the house. Everybody deserves to live a happy life. No one should be living in a marriage where the atmosphere is always tense, blaming, no trust, and agony, filled with malicious and vindictive behavior. If the parties involved are ready to take accountability for their vice and seek help and act on it, that is awesome. Such marriages can become meaningful and wholesome. But when there are denial and blame, no honesty and accountability, and no willingness to work on yourself, it becomes a nightmare.
When there is an addiction, there is no authenticity and there cannot be a real relationship. If there is an addiction, the spouse must not become an enabler. The addict must go into recovery. Empathy is very different from enabling. Don’t enable in the name of empathy.
Mental illness is not the fault of the person suffering. But they must be willing to take accountability and deal with it. The spouse must learn about the illness and know the boundaries of where you can support and where you must create boundaries. Should one stay in a marriage with mental illness? That is something each person must decide. There are those who remain in such a marriage; they are unique and special people, and at times, there is a special beauty and love in such a marriage. These people are from the noblest and dedicated people you will find on the planet. Yet they love each other, and they learn how to deal with the challenge that Hashem has given this person.
Can an abusive marriage be saved? If the one with the problem – mental illness, abusive tendencies, addiction – acknowledges the struggle and sincerely works to correct the situation, then perhaps the marriage can be salvaged. However, if they don’t get the help, it can be a very tough situation.
With that background, Rabbi Jacobson explored the famous Gemara in Gittin, 90b: (Talking about the husband) “With regard to anyone who divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears for him,” quoting the prophet Malachi 2:13-14: “And this further you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping, and with sighing, insomuch that He does not regard the offering any more, nor does He receive it with goodwill from your hand. Yet you say: What for? Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant.” In short: You have betrayed your wife – she is your friend and the wife of your covenant, but you have betrayed her. And that is why the altar cries.
Metzudas Dovid explains this posuk: The women were crying because of their shame, abuse and lack of dignity. And when the women cry, the altar cries.
Rashi explains: The women say to the altar ‘What iniquity has our husband found in us to treat us in such a derogatory fashion?’ and hence the altar cries.
The whole point of this Gemara and verse in Malachi is: There are some women hurt so badly and they cry, and therefore the altar cries.
To the comment that every situation is from Hashem and Hashem only gives what we can handle, Rabbi Jacobson said: We do not always know exactly what Hashem wants in a particular situation. He wants us always to work hard on our marriage and try to make it work. But sometimes G-d’s will is to get out of the situation. How does anyone know that G-d wants me to stay in the marriage? If G-d wanted people to stay in an abusive marriage, why does He include the concept of Gittin in the Torah?
Rabbi Jacobson then spoke directly to those in abusive relationships, some points to the abused and some to the abuser:
– Often, you will get foolish advice from people who are clueless. Learn not to take all advice seriously. It is important to speak to people. But people who are empathetic and knowledgeable.
– You need to speak to top experts in the areas you are dealing with.
– Divorce is difficult. But it is an option to consider in certain situations. Divorce should not be decided impulsively. You need to have get very sound advice and follow also your gut.
– Consider the pros and cons. Objectively, from a place of strength, not weakness. Talk with experts. Know what is available to you – legally, mentally, emotionally, financially. Be informed. Read books on your struggles. Become educated. So you can make decisions from a place of empowerment. Evaluate your future from a place of power. Find out what legal powers you have.
– Don’t get into ego struggles. It is more important for you to be happy than to be right.
– Don’t always think about social pressure. Listen to your own voice, and don’t get affected by what others will say. When we give into social conformity, we abuse ourselves even more. Don’t betray your own emotions.
– Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Do things that nurture your body, mind and soul. You need to give yourself to deal with your challenges. Don’t become a shmatte (rag).
– If getting divorced, do it amicably. The children suffer terribly from the animosity in an ugly divorce. It is such a tragedy when friends and families instead of encouraging amicability, justify heinous behavior.
– Stop torturing your spouse after you are getting a divorce. Let it go! Move on! Let everybody move on.
It continues to amaze me that not all couples are signing Halachic prenuptial agreements to eliminate the issue of Get-Refusal, especially in light of the growing Agunah crisis. When I meet with clients and ask why they did not sign a prenuptial agreement, the response is almost always the same—“I never thought this could happen to me.” Others have admitted that they were told it was not necessary.
The newest dispute arises with the International Beit Din, which has been attempting to utilize two Halachic tools to resolve cases where a Get is being withheld or not accepted. The Rabbis use the mechanisms of declaring the witnesses from the wedding not kosher or declaring that there was a preexisting flaw in the husband that was not disclosed to the woman prior to the wedding, so that the marriage was a mistake.
Both these tactics have been used, in rare cases, by other Rabbinic courts around the world, but the International Beit Din is interpreting cases with wider latitude, looking to find Halachic loopholes. Not surprisingly, this has generated fevered controversy. But this is not the first time efforts have been made to find loopholes to justify the granting of a Get when one of the parties is not cooperating. In the past, similar attempts have also ultimately failed to win acceptance. For example, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman created a Beit Din in the 1980s to free Agunot by granting annulments and circumventing the need for a Get. This, however, was not universally accepted as a valid termination of the marriage.
Each time the Agunah problem makes the news, clients, friends, and Rabbis reach out to me with the same question: “Esther, how do we solve this problem?” Despite the seeming proliferation of serious discussions as to the depth of the problem, to date there exists but one practical method to solve the crisis. The solution lies in prevention. That is where the concept of the prenuptial agreement comes into play; at this point, the most widely accepted Halachic method meant to circumvent the problem of Agunah altogether is the Halachic prenuptial agreement. If couples would enter into a valid, enforceable prenuptial agreement and agree that should the marriage break down, neither will withhold the giving or accepting of the Get from the other, the problem would be avoided.
The leading prenuptial agreement used within the Orthodox community is the Beth Din of America’s “Binding Arbitration Agreement,” also referred to as the “RCA prenup.” By signing the RCA prenup, the bride and groom are authorizing the Rabbinical court, as an arbitration panel, to render a binding decision on all issues relating to a Get. There are also optional clauses empowering the religious court to decide all of the divorcing couple’s monetary disputes and child custody and related issues. The entire agreement is in keeping with the law of the state where it is signed and can be enforced as a binding arbitration agreement in the secular court. The core of the prenuptial agreement, however, is the groom’s obligation to support his wife at the rate of $150 a day as long as he refuses her request for a Get.
The basic idea of the Halachic prenuptial agreement is that it brings about financial penalties against the resisting spouse for being recalcitrant in the divorce proceedings. The Beth Din of America reports that in practically every divorce proceeding where a prenuptial agreement was signed, the Get has been given within a reasonable time. This is a remarkable track record. Since 2006, the Beth Din of America has even mandated that its member Rabbis have the couple sign a prenuptial agreement before officiating at the marriages.
It should be noted that the RCA prenuptial agreement is not the only way to effectuate the desired outcome here. Similar prenuptial agreements can be drafted for couples that are more comfortable with a different Beit Din or with their attorneys drafting the prenuptial agreement.
It is important for everyone to understand that when signing any legally binding document, such as a Halachic prenuptial agreement, it is advisable to seek legal counsel. An experienced attorney will help a person make choices appropriate to their situation and that will meet their comfort level. For example, in the RCA prenuptial agreement, parties can choose which aspects of the divorce they would want arbitrated in the Beit Din. The agreement can be as narrow as to just include the Get, or it can encompass all end-of-marriage issues, thereby empowering the religious court to decide all of a divorcing couple’s monetary disputes and questions of custody and visitation. Because this can be a binding arbitration agreement, it is advisable to discuss the various options with an attorney. As a side point, and to further emphasize the importance of consulting with an attorney, is the potential non-enforceability of custody-related decisions made by a Beit Din. Therefore, in order to avoid potential conflict and prolonged litigation in the future, the parties should be aware of their legal rights and be educated on potential future outcomes. Avoiding doing so can have dangerous ramifications.
While the prenuptial agreement is vital in this day and age, it is a preventive measure, not a cure-all. Think of a prenuptial agreement as a form of insurance which is reliable for the problem of Get-Refusal, but is not effective in all circumstances. What is most remarkable about the prenuptial agreement is that, for now, it seems to actually be working. It has been utilized in scores of cases, including many of my firm’s cases, and has consistently prevented the use of the Get as a tool for improper leverage or extortion. It has even worked in highly contentious cases, where the parties litigated all the other issues of the case. Where there is a prenuptial agreement, most often the Beit Din does not even need to begin formal proceedings to award support under the arbitration provisions of the agreement.
The problem is that many people are either ignorant of the problem or of the importance of signing a prenuptial agreement, or it was recommended to them not to sign it. As a result, there are still many recalcitrant husbands who are able to use the Get as leverage or extortion over their wives. While husbands can also be refused the acceptance of a Get, men have other options to be granted a Get, such as permission from 100 rabbis, called a Heter Meah Rabbanim. Moreover, the prenuptial agreement may ameliorate the plight of the Agunah, but it does not solve the problem totally, since the monetary demands imposed on a husband will have no impact on a husband who is wealthy, is mentally unstable, or has absolutely no funds, and therefore would not be threatened by the monetary obligation.
The Halachic prenuptial agreement can only be effective as a solution to the community-wide problem of Get-Refusal if it is adopted for use by the community as a whole, since those who are most likely to need it are usually those least likely to sign it. There must be communal pressure to sign prenuptial agreements. It should be universally accepted that a couple must sign one, similar to it being universally accepted to attend classes concerning family-purity laws. Unfortunately, in some circles, the signing of a prenuptial agreement is taboo. While there is still a need to find a more comprehensive solution to the Agunah crisis, the prenuptial agreement serves as an effective solution by way of prevention.
Esther Schonfeld, Esq., is a founding partner of the law firm Schonfeld & Goldring, LLP with offices located in Cedarhurst, New York. . Schonfeld & Goldring, LLP limits its practice to divorce law, family law, and matrimonial law in both secular court and rabbinical courts. Ms. Schonfeld, also a trained mediator, is a member of the NY State Council on Divorce Mediation.
During the recent Pesach holiday I had the opportunity to reflect on the freedoms we take for granted each day.
In this country we are afforded a wide array of freedoms previously denied our ancestors, neighbors, and colleagues. While we may take it for granted, most of these freedoms were obtained through such measures as military action, widespread protest, substantial political maneuvering, legal action, and judicial intervention.
When a woman is denied a Get following the disintegration of her marriage, she is denied her freedom. She is denied the freedom to separate herself permanently from a spouse to whom she no longer wishes to be married. She is denied the freedom to move on in her life and forge a new relationship. She is denied the freedom to have (more) children.
Too often, unfortunately, woman are also asked to forgo their parental and economic rights as well in exchange for their freedom. I would like to pose a question that may be viewed as controversial: Should a woman, and her supporters, negotiate with a recalcitrant spouse in order to gain her freedom? In essence, should we negotiate with a terrorist?
Terrorists make demands because they believe the demands will be met. When those demands are met or negotiated over, the tactic proves effective. When people or governments negotiate with terrorists, at least two important consequences invariably follow. There is an immediate relinquishing of what was demanded and there is a future fallout that can almost always be directly connected to the initial exchange. (For example, future terrorist activity on the part of prisoners freed in a negotiation).
To simplify the rationale for terrorism for the purpose of this article, let us assume that terrorists act in pursuit of a specific quid pro quo or to attain an overall sense of power and acquisition. (All too often, men who withhold a Get do so simply to gain and maintain power and control over their spouse.) It would follow, then, that if a terrorist understood that no matter what the demand and no matter how dire the situation, there would be no negotiation, the terrorist would not continue to incite terror.
How is such a goal achieved? Through zero tolerance. By not negotiating with terrorists under any circumstances.
Get refusal exists because we allow it to exist. Without looking to change halacha, we certainly have the power to effectuate change through a communal climate shift. If public pressure were such that recalcitrance in granting a Get would – without exception – be abhorred rather than tolerated, there would be no place for Get refusal in our communities.
When the Get of even one terror victim is negotiated, the freedom of so many others is sacrificed. In the absence of an unadulterated zero-tolerance policy, there will always be room for acceptance. Negotiating with a man who refuses his wife a Get sends a message to the community that Get refusal is within the norm and that the granting of a Get carries a price.
I do not want to suggest that even one woman serve as the sacrificial lamb in her fight for freedom. However, change will only come if there is a systemic and unwavering movement toward a policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
May we soon experience freedom and redemption for all of Klal Yisrael.
Rachel Marks, Esq., is associated with the law firm of Schonfeld and Goldring, LLP, with offices located in Cedarhurst, New York. (Schonfeld and Goldring, LLP limits its practice to divorce, family, and matrimonial law in both secular and rabbinic courts.) A former assistant district attorney, she sits on the boards of directors of Shalom Task Force and Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services.
I finally got my Get. But I had to pay my ex $40,000. Here is my story of pain and extortion.
I got married at 26 to Dovid, the son of a prominent NY family who owned a large medical supply company. After only a few weeks, the abuse began. He was physically and verbally abusive, and often threw me out of our apartment. At first, my parents pointed to the vast amount of money spent for our wedding and asked me to try to work it out. When the abuse escalated, they recanted and supported my desire to leave. I walked out seven months after I stood with Dovid under the Chuppah. I thought the Get process would be simple, especially considering the fact that he had been divorced before, under similar circumstances. I approached a Rabbi in a well-known Bet Din our community, but Dovid’s family refused to allow that beit din to adjudicate the divorce. They kept refusing to show up to any Bet Din proceedings.
I had reason to be worried. I found out that the ex wife had been sworn to secrecy in exchange for her Get and had not disclosed to us about his mental health issues. Dovid’s mother had told me that if I wanted a Get, I would have to “Pay for it or I could wait until I was post-menopausal.” I was confused as this was a wealthy family and they knew my parents had no financial means. Where did they think I would get money to ransom myself from this man?
After months of threats and stonewalling on their part, I was put in touch with a bonafide writer for a NY Jewish newspaper and an Agunah activist. She wrote a story about me and the family was told that if they did not agree to arbitration, the story would be published. The family was very concerned about their reputation and immediately agreed to allow the divorce to be adjudicated by means of a Beit Din established by a Zabla, a three-member rabbinic panel in which one rabbinic judge, is chosen by the wife; one is chosen by the husband, and the third is chosen jointly. Since I was pushing for the divorce, I was responsible for paying the fees charged both my Rav and the joint Rav. They each charged $250 per hour. The first meeting was arranged and it soon became clear that dragging it out for hours meant that more money could be made by all. At the end of a long day, in which all three Rabbis took breaks for davening, meals, phone calls, and talking, my bill was nearly a whopping $10,000. They came to no conclusion and told me they needed another meeting.
I later realized that I did not only lose a lot of money that day. My Rav told me that I should just say yes to everything they accused me of and keep repeating that I simply want my Get. They said I was a whore, a bad wife, “proving” their accusations with pictures from our honeymoon in which I was wearing a bathing suit. They were speaking quickly in Yiddish and I did not understand what they were saying. I just kept nodding and saying that I just wanted my Get. The Rabbis agreed that I “admitted” to being a “Moredet,” a woman who has not fulfilled her duties as a wife. Because I incriminated myself, my Rav then told me that I would have to pay a large sum of money to settle the divorce out of court.
The negotiations began at $30,000, but when I agreed, the sum escalated to $50,000, then $80,000, then $100,000. We realized there would be no end. So we gave up negotiations and tried to hire another Rabbi. This new Rabbi threatened Dovid that he would convene a Bet Din and annul my marriage through a process called “Mekach Taut.” Dovid called his bluff, knowing that there was not a Bet Din who would be willing to do that. In the end, a cousin finally pressured the family to renegotiate. He threatened to make their lives miserable, and tell everyone of his issues. He followed them upstate to their vacation home and continued to harass them. They broke after another month of negotations and agreed to take $40,000 in exchange for the Get. They demanded that we paid in cash and gave us 24 hours to come up with the money.
I was at their mercy. I begged and borrowed and paid for my Get. It was a ransom. I redeemed myself. After suffering for almost a year and not being in control of my own fate, I was crippled. I belonged to someone else. I knew that this would be money well spent and I have never looked back.
Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, marked International Agunah Day, the purpose of which is to publicize the plight of Agunot, “chained” women who are not able to obtain a Get, a religious divorce, from their husbands.
The name “Esther” is related to the Hebrew word “hester,” meaning hidden. For nine years, Esther guarded the secret of her religious and familial heritage. As the Talmud notes, she “hid her words.” The Purim story heroine was thus kept silent.
How does this connect to this International Agunah Day?
Like Esther, the voices of Agunot have been hidden and silenced. Consequently, when a Mesurevet-Get, a woman whose husband has refused to grant her a Get, can voice her void, we must embrace it. And while some might find the act of shaming men who withhold Gets shameful in and of itself, I contend that any opportunity to empower Mesuravot-Get and recast the characters, making abusive husbands the object of shame, must be embraced.
“E-shaming,” is a constructive, re-imagined, rebooted version of traditional acts taken to shame men who refuse to grant Gets. Technology can help remedy instances of Get-refusal by exposing abusive husbands as those who should be ashamed. Intensified use of technology in our digital age offers a fresh take on remedying this deep-rooted phenomenon.
E-shaming, a term I coined in relation to the Agunah issue, is more beneficial than other grassroots remedies because it cuts across boundaries and networks of affiliation. The critique of traditional Cherem, or excommunication, is that abusive husbands can join new communities or synagogues easily, leaving their bad behaviour behind them. The effects of Cherem are not as severe or impactful as they were centuries, or even decades, ago when moving was more onerous and expensive and congregations less prevalent. E-shaming, reverses this effect, so that husbands, too, are chained to their choices to chain wives.
Most importantly, this nexus of Get refusal and technology enables women to be active participants in navigating complex legal orders, simultaneously challenging the imagery of the passive victims they are portrayed as. Transforming Mesuravot-Get from passive, helpless victims to active participants in campaigns to exact Gets is momentous, not shameful. Social media has become a platform whereby Mesuravot-Get can recast the mistaken perceptions about them and assert their agency (something we should celebrate as feminists, by the way).
That said, not every Agunah would feel comfortable with e-shaming. Individuals must be respected, and public campaigns are not always in everyone’s best interests.
However, in Canada, e-shaming could be particularly potent, since no other remedies, including a viable, legal and halachically endorsed prenuptial agreement, have yet to emerge. My objective is to alert the Jewish community to the e-shaming phenomenon and the transformative successes it has been known to produce in challenging dominant perceptions about Agunot as weak, passive, submissive victims, and in challenging dominant normative reactions by communities which deny the existence of Get-refusal altogether.
E-shaming contributes to the unsilencing and self-narration of Mesuravot-Get, and I welcome giving them a platform from which to tell their stories. Most of the women I have interviewed in the course of my work, including dozens in New York and Toronto, described the shame they feel, having endured abuse and accusations they wronged their families by failing at marriage and disappointing the community and the marriage ideal that the religion propagates. If empowerment can be achieved through e-shaming, that is noteworthy, and we mustn’t be ashamed of it. We must use every tool in our toolbox.
Let us not stand idly by, allowing the everyday heroines of our generation to remain hidden, to be silenced as Esther was. Let us reveal the hidden by empowering Agunot and their narratives.
Yael C.B. Machtinger is a PhD candidate in socio-legal studies at York University in Toronto
In what is being hailed an unprecedented decision, Rabbanut Av Beis Din Dayan Shlomo Shapira has ruled a husband must give his wife a get after it was proven he was guilty of harshly abusing his wife psychologically. The Beis Din said this type of torture is viewed no less seriously than physical abuse.
The Psak Din states: ”הבעל התעלל נפשית קשות באישה ולדעתנו התעללות כזו היא אלימות קשה והיא אינה פחותה מהתעללות גופנית”.
It is reported that to date, a Beis Din would not take psychological or verbal abuse into consideration.
The couple in question was married for 15 years and they have a son. During the years the husband would avoid relations with his wife or was away at night or would ignore his wife, preferring to watch television. On Shabbos and Yomtov he would disappear as well, leaving her alone. He treated his wife disrespectfully and caused her great emotional pain and suffering.
After a number of sessions before the Beis Din, the Dayanim agreed that the wife was the subject of abuse for many years, in addition to threats made against her by her husband.
“התרשמנו כי אילו הבעל היה מפגין שמץ של יחס לאשתו האישה לא היתה מגישה תביעה לגירושין, אך דא עקא, הבעל רואה את אשתו כצעצוע וכרכוש השייך לו. הוא מתעלם מחובותיו, מתעלם מרגשותיה ולמרות האזהרות הרבות, התחינות של האישה והתראות בית הדין הוא אינו עושה דבר”.
The Dayanim explain that if the husband would have shown a hint of concern for his wife, she would not be seeking divorce but he views her as a toy and his property to do with as he wishes. He ignores his duties, her feelings and despite numerous warnings and pleas from his wife and the Beis Din, he does nothing.
The Beis Din added the essence of marriage is a life and not sorrow, and therefore it is ruling to compel the husband to grant her a get.
The report adds the position of the Dayanim is in line with rulings by many Poskim including Shulchan Aruch and the Rambam.
Dayanim Rav Avraham Meizles and Rav Ariel Oriel were of the same mind as the Av Beis Din.
South of the border, rabbis have been able to address the problem of Agunot – women “chained” to their husbands because of the men’s refusal to voluntarily grant a Jewish divorce – by promoting adoption of a prenuptial agreement that includes a stiff financial penalty for recalcitrant spouses.
It might be effective, but that type of prenup isn’t enforceable under Canadian law, because courts here won’t uphold monetary penalties imposed by rabbinic authorities. With that in mind, a modern Orthodox Montreal rabbi has crafted his own agreement that he believes is halachically compliant, meets Canadian legal standards, and is intended to substantially reduce, if not eliminate, the problem of Agunot.
Rabbi Michael Whitman, senior rabbi at Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff, recently released his “Halachic Prenup for Canada” and is urging rabbis who perform marriages to recommend it to couples about to tie the knot. In his case, he goes further. He won’t marry couples who refuse to sign it.
Rabbi Whitman believes his prenuptial agreement would work in Canada. It names a specific Beit Din in New York – the Beth Din of America – to adjudicate disputes and pledges the parties to comply with its orders. It also includes a provision requiring the couple to each get independent legal and rabbinic advice.
Rabbi Whitman said the prenup was developed in consultation with retired judges, lawyers and law professors to ensure it conforms to Canadian law.
It does so by not asking Canadian courts, which adjudicate matters such as civil divorce, from deciding issues of a religious nature, nor does it allow rabbinic courts, sitting as arbitration panels, to impose financial repercussions, which a civil court would not enforce.
Instead a Canadian court would be asked to look at a legally-binding document that obliges the parties to appear before the Beth Din of America, or another rabbinic court it designates, “for the purpose of following the direction of that Beit Din concerning giving/receiving a Get [religious divorce] only.”
The prenup goes on to require the parties to follow the Beit Din’s suggestion of removing “barriers to religious re-marriage by obtaining a Get… It is our intention to address any other issues that may need at that time to be resolved between us, separate from the giving and receiving of the Get, outside the Beit Din proceeding.”
Rabbi Whitman said that when similar prenups were adopted in the United States and Israel, “there are no cases of Agunot.” But, he continued, “it’s like the polio vaccine. All we need to do is get people to take it.”
Rabbi Michael Whitman is the senior rabbi at Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff
The Torah on one foot according to Hillel is “what is hateful to you don’t do to your neighbor.” However, because the process of Jewish divorce, according to Torah law, gives the upper hand to the husband, men will sometimes abuse this power and use a Get (Jewish divorce document) as leverage against their wives in order to negotiate for a more favorable settlement for themselves.
Many Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against this practice, declaring that using a Get as leverage is a form of abuse and therefore prohibited. But some rabbis condone this practice with the justification that “the wife was being unreasonable.” In truth, in matters of matrimonial discord both sides can be unreasonable. Money can give one party the upper hand, children can be used as pawns; the list goes on and on. But having one side have more of an advantage solely because of his gender is difficult to understand and accept, which is why a ruling this week in Israel (according to Srugim.co.il) in the Beis Din of the Rabbanut Ha’Reishit of Israel, headed by Chief Rabbi, Dovid Lau, is so important.
In a ground breaking decision, they declared that it is not permitted to make any conditions or combine the giving of the Get to the division of property. Only after the Get is given may a division of property take place. The head of the Mavuy Satum organization, Batya Kahana Dror, told Srugim that this is a historic precedent that they have been working on for a number of years. “Until now men were totally unchallenged and unequally in control of being able to extort property from their wives on threat of not giving the Get. Now, the beis din has finally declared that division of property and giving the Get must be two completely separate issues and cannot be used as a threat. The husband must give the Get before the division of property may even begin to take place at this point. This ruling has a very progressive implication towards resolving the problem of men extorting their wives for Gitten, which is typically done simply for finances.
Kahana-Dror pointed out that the judges and specifically Rabbi Lau worked long hours in order to reach a solution. “Rabbi Lau and Dayanim Katz and Igra demonstrated tremendous effort, often sitting together in the Beis Din until the wee hours of the morning. It is unfortunate that a conclusion was not reached before this, but Rabbi Lau’s general practice is to put major effort and caring into every issue that he becomes involved in.”
Allison Josephs is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City.
Laws that already exist can also be utilized to prevent agunot, women chained to their marraiges.
It seems that most of what we hear today regarding agunot is what cannot be done. From heads of yeshivot to the regular person on the Internet, organizational announcements, blog posts and Facebook statuses are filled with what is wrong, unacceptable and dangerous about freeing Jewish women chained to their marriages.
Doors are closed before they can even be knocked on, and many women have nowhere to turn.
The lack of options has led Jewish women to the national media to plead their cases. The stories of women trapped in marriage have been spread across the pages of American publications such as The New York Post, Newsweek and other mainstream media. Unequal divorce laws in Judaism have become common knowledge, yet it still seems that there is no way out in Jewish law when a man refuses to grant a get.
Martin Friedlander of Martin Friedlander PC is a matrimonial attorney whose office is located in midtown Manhattan.
He appears regularly in the US Supreme Court and family courts, as well as in religious courts (batei din) for Jewish divorce cases. He is not only an attorney but also has rabbinical ordination (smicha) from Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Hakohen Pam. What he has seen in his more than 20 years of handling divorces has prompted him to take action.
It was during the Tahel – Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children’s conference in Israel last year that Friedlander conceived Yashar. The conference presents research information and trains professionals in treating different forms of abuse, including get refusal. At Tahel, Friedlander met other matrimonial attorneys from around the world, and they quickly recognized a common desire to find ways to prevent get refusal.
Last June, he held preliminary meetings to present his vision of Yashar in his law office. In attendance was Tahel director Debbie Gross, prominent attorney Nat Lewin and other matrimonial attorneys interested in the coalition. Frustrated with what they regard as an unfair situation, the international group came together to do what they can to change the status quo and provide concepts within the secular court that would be approved by halachic authorities.
Unlike in Israel, courts abroad have no authority to punish a husband who refuses to grant a get or a wife who is unwilling to accept one. In fact, a couple can be civilly divorced, yet remain halachically married. This leads to a very difficult situation in which the get can be used to extort money, settlements, custody or inflict emotional pain on a spouse.
In addition to agreeing to not represent those who withhold a get, the organization has two main objectives. The first is to pursue a prenuptial agreement that would be accepted by a wide spectrum of the religious community and be approved by attorneys and rabbis. The second is to exchange ideas on how to use various laws worldwide as they pertain to agunot within both the religious court and the civil court and try to implement ideas that have been successful.
Many versions of a halachic prenup already exist, including one used by the Rabbinical Council of America; however, none is deemed acceptable by the more right-wing sects of Judaism. Friedlander has been working with community leaders to create a document that would be encouraged and effective within these communities. Having rabbinic ordination himself, he is aware of the potential objections and pitfalls and works within the halachic system to draft this document.
When asked why, after all other attempts have failed to bring certain communities on board with a halachic prenup, these communities might be amenable now, he says, “The divorce rate among Orthodox Jews is fast approaching that of regular society. But the ramifications of one couple’s divorce goes far beyond the couple and their children.
Because the community is family based, it becomes a battle between two families, and the acrimony and litigation become larger than the couple. This leads to third-party involvement, and the get then becomes a bargaining chip. The current agreement of the community leaders is a product of awareness and acknowledgment that divorce and get refusal is a real problem. It’s just not deniable anymore, so people are becoming more receptive.
Friedlander speaks to heads of yeshivot and rabbinic judges, who are prominent and influential, to get them on board. Getting these leaders to support the idea and encourage prenuptial agreements is essential in making them mainstream. Friedlander estimates that a widely accepted and regularly used prenup could reduce the incidence of agunot by up to 80 percent in the US.
And what of the other 20% – those whose spouses hang on for reasons such as extortion, spite or control? That is where Yashar hopes to bring the law into play. Courts cannot force a man to give a get – even when they want to – as this is considered a get meuseh, a forced divorce, and is not halachically valid according to most rabbis.
Yashar seeks ways to use existing laws or suggests new ones to help in cases of get refusal. An example of legislation created specifically to help agunot is New York’s Get Law, which states that a court will not grant a civil divorce when a Jewish divorce is being withheld.
Laws that already exist can also be utilized to prevent agunot. In one case in New York, a man ran off leaving his wife and children behind with no get.
The court could not arrest him for refusing to give a get, but the judge was able to order a substantial child support award, and the man was arrested when he did not pay. He was held until he gave his wife a get; she then released him of the exorbitant child support.
At this year’s Tahel conference, held a few weeks ago in Jerusalem, Yashar’s coalition was introduced. Lawyers from around the English-speaking world gathered and presented the various laws in their countries that protect agunot.
Esther Schonfeld of Schonfeld and Goldring spoke about amended New York laws regarding maintenance and equitable property distributions. The default status in New York is that property is split 50-50; however, if either side puts up a barrier to the other party’s remarriage, including a religious one, they risk losing their share.
According to Schonfeld, “We deal with this on a daily basis. In Kings County, the law has been applied in many decisions. In the past three decades that the Get Law has been on the books, it has nudged hundreds of men and women to go through the religious divorce process.”
But does the Get Law work? According to Goldring, it helps settle cases before or in the heat of litigation, with the law taking away the control the husband usually has. The marital estate, which includes retirement accounts, businesses and the family home, are usually divided on a 50-50 basis. The husband can’t use the get to ask for more than that. If he has not removed barriers to remarriage, he will not be able to receive anything.
One hotly litigated divorce case involved child custody, fees and property.
The husband refused to give a get. The court granted the wife the entire estate, including a house worth several million dollars. The man eventually did grant the religious divorce.
In a more recent case, the husband was plaintiff and had told his friends that he would not give a get. It was explained to his lawyer that they would invoke the Get Law. His attorney told him to grant it, and together with community pressure, it worked.
Canadian law states that if someone hasn’t removed religious barriers to the ex-spouse’s remarriage, they will have their claims dismissed or pleadings struck. If the husband gives the get, his pleadings will be reinstated. However, the religious court in Toronto does not like this law and will not allow a husband to grant a get if the reason is the civil court.
Sharon Shore, a partner at Epstein-Kohl in Ontario and frequent speaker on family law issues, explained that religious courts that object to these laws claim that they render a get invalid because of coercion.
But, she says, “Coercion isn’t the problem – it’s who is doing the coercing.”
If the Jewish community coerces a recalcitrant husband via public pressure, the get will stand.
It is within the religious court’s power to torpedo a woman’s options if it chooses. In one case, Shore had a client from the Bobov community, and the husband said he would give her the get only if she gave up custody and property. She signed the agreement and planned to go to civil court, but the religious court then withdrew her religious dispensation (heter) to go to civil court. It was too late for her – she had given up her children and all her money.
In Canada, because there is no separation of church and state, divorce must go through an arbitrator; thus the Rabbinical Council of America’s halachic prenup does not work. Yashar is working with RCA executive committee member Rabbi Michael Whitman to create a prenup for Canada, and they hope to launch it by the end of this year.
The UK has passed a law called the Serious Crime Act of 2015, which essentially considers get refusal a criminal act – psychological and emotional domestic abuse. According to Dianna Levine of the UK, “It’s the most amazing piece of legislation yet.”
In Australia, prenups are not easy to create or enforce, but a creative and groundbreaking case by Talya Feigenbaum led to get refusal being considered domestic violence and grounds for extension of orders of protection that may be expiring. The withholding of a get is shown to be continued dominion and control by the husband.
These laws and the efforts to use them to release women from dead marriages are inspiring. It brings hope to those who see the agunah issue as a crisis in modern Judaism.
But for those who have advocated for the rights of agunot for years within the Jewish community, it is difficult to see that instead of wide-ranging solutions coming from rabbinic leadership, it is the secular courts that are finding creative ways to free women.
Queen Esther might be seen as the original agunah, stuck in a marriage she did not want, with no one able to free her. How ironic, then, that the words Mordecai said to her when she hesitated to go before the king (some say this voluntary approach to the king was her tacit acceptance of her marriage) were, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.”
It seems that today Yashar and its band of heroic attorneys are the place from which many agunot will find their deliverance.
In Judaism, when a man refuses to give his wife a religious divorce he is taking away her most basic human right – her freedom to live and be who she wants to be.
In my 14 years of practicing as a rabbi, I have been asked numerous times to offer counsel and support to couples in failing marriages.
Despite the fact that it takes two to tango, often the breakdown of a marriage is more the fault of one party than the other. Yet no matter how the marriage ends and who is at fault, if the husband does not actively agree to give a Get (Jewish religious divorce) immediately after the wife requests it, he is always in the wrong.
From a religious perspective, the Torah is very protective about the feelings and dignity of women – even more so than that of men. The Talmud warns men to never hurt their spouses’ feelings and/or cause them to weep. It cautions men to be exceedingly careful about their spouses’ dignity and honor (Baba Metzia, 59a) and to respect and honor them more than they honor themselves (Yevamot, 62b, Maimonides, Ishut, 15:19).
These guidelines are based on biblical sources and have been codified into Jewish Law. Furthermore the Talmud tells us that in matters of worldly and household affairs the women’s opinion takes precedence to that of the man’s (Baba Metzia, ibid).
Clearly, a man who refuses his wife’s request to give a religious bill of divorce for any period of time, after it is made clear that from her perspective the marriage is over, is contravening these extremely serious sections of Jewish law in the most grievous manner possible. But refusing to give a Get is also the mark of a man who lacks basic human empathy and common decency.
In civil divorces, either spouse has the right to file for divorce. Once the papers are filed, the process is set in motion and after all matters have been settled the divorce is finalized. Granted, this can take some time. But once one party files, the other has to go along with it.
In the case of a Get, it is entirely different. The wife has no ability to file. The best she can do is ask her husband to cooperate with a Jewish court or rabbi to have the Get written on his behalf and then handed over to her in front of witnesses.
Should he refuse, insisting instead that he would like to remain married, there is nothing she can do. She becomes an Agunah (chained woman) with no way of extracting herself from the man she no longer wants to be married to.
In Jewish Law, this means that she cannot remarry or have a serious relationship with another man. She remains stuck, unable to move on with her life. This is in contradistinction to the husband, who can still find ways to remarry should his wife refuse to accept a Get.
In addition, the religious sanctions the husband may face should he have a relationship with a woman other than his Get-refusing-wife are far less severe than those faced by a woman in the identical situation.
Thus, in Judaism, when a man refuses to give his wife a Get he is taking away her most basic human right – her freedom to live and be who she wants to be.
The moment the wife decides she no longer wants to be married to her husband, human empathy and common decency dictates that he must let her free. By finding excuses for not doing so, he is controlling her in a manner that contravenes every aspect of her basic human rights. There is only one apt description for that type of behavior – pure evil.
Some men hide behind Jewish Law as a reason not to give a Get. They argue that all aspects of the divorce need to be settled before they are halachically (according to Jewish law) allowed to give the Get. They then proceed to make any settlement as difficult as possible allowing them to continue their abusive and controlling behavior.
Tragically, there are some Jewish courts that allow men to behave this way. Happily, however, most of the larger reputable Jewish courts will not allow narcissistic men to use religion as a tool to further abuse and blackmail their wives.
The most obnoxious Get refusers, however, seem to avoid reputable Jewish courts. As pernicious are men who tell their wife who is desperate for a divorce that they “want to work on their marriage” and therefore won’t give a Get. Again, this ploy won’t work at most reputable Jewish courts.
In the final analysis, the refusal to give a Get by a husband, for any reason, will cause pain to his wife. Therefore, it is not only contrary to the spirit of Judaism; it contravenes the letter of the law as well.
But beyond that, it is a terrible desecration of G-d’s name because, in essence, it is just another example of the cynical use of religion to hurt and control another human being. Tragically, this is yet another case of women being especially disadvantaged in this regard.
Decent men and women must not be silent when they see religion being used to batter and abuse others. Saying that this is not my business or that I need to know the entire story before I can judge is not acceptable.
With regards to a Get, the man holds all the power and the women has none. Thus, the instant he refuses her request for a Get he is automatically in the wrong, no matter what the background story is or was.
Decent people everywhere, therefore, must speak out against such people to the degree that it becomes socially unacceptable not to immediately give a Get upon request.
As the halachic prenup, which ensures substantial monetary penalties for not giving a Get, becomes more popular, this problem will hopefully become a thing of the past.
But until that happens, there are still women who are chained and suffering, and it is up to you and me to do all we can to ensure that their evil tormentors do not get away with it.
‘Rising From Divorce’ seeks to engage the insular community with concrete methods to ease children’s pain in the aftermath of an all-too-modern problem.
NEW YORK – Coming on the heels of the North American release of “The Get,” an Israeli film about religious divorce in Israel, comes a new video targeted to the Orthodox Jewish community, “Rising from Divorce.” The short film, the first of its kind, stars real people and is designed to educate rather than entertain.
“Rising From Divorce” casts no judgment on a couples’ decision to divorce. It doesn’t address the reasons for divorce or try to prevent it. Rather it seeks to engage the Jewish Orthodox community about the impact it has on parents and children.
“Everything we do is confronting stigma in the community. We’re not dealing with the whys, but the what happens after,” said Derek Saker, from the New York-based OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, which produced the video.
OHEL decided it was time to address the issue since currently in the United States, about 30 percent of Jewish marriages end in divorce. And as the largest social service organization serving the Jewish Orthodox community and beyond, OHEL felt it was uniquely positioned to offer advice, Saker said.
And so the call went out. Would men and women be willing to share their stories in front of the camera? The answer was a resounding yes, Saker said. Nearly 30 divorcees stepped forward.
“I look at this video as ‘it takes a village,’” said Dr. Hindie Klein, a psychologist and OHEL’s director of clinical projects.
“There are many different aspects on how we can help, on how to give divorcees and children of divorce the emotional support to make a difference. Everybody in the community needs to be highly sensitized,” said Klein.
To that end the video includes interviews with divorcees, rabbis, community leaders, children of divorce and teachers. The organization plans community-wide screenings followed by panel discussions in cities across the US and in Canada.
Rivky Sonnenfeld married at 22, had a baby at 23 and divorced at 25. Fifteen years later, she works full-time and goes to school, all while raising her daughter alone in Flatbush.
Sonnenfeld counts herself as fortunate. Although divorce carries a lot of stigma in the Orthodox community, her parents, who live in Scranton, PA, never questioned her decision. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to tell her story on camera.
“I was very impressed with their vision [OHEL] and what they wanted to do,” Sonnenfeld said. “I just felt if this could open everyone’s eyes to the situation, to what is going on. It’s about moving forward and how the community could better step up.”
Whether it’s inviting a newly divorced man or woman for Shabbat dinner, offering to take a divorcee’s child to synagogue or just listening, there are many ways for people in the community to help, Klein said.
It’s important for educators to be aware of what children of divorce are experiencing, said Rochel Chafetz, a teacher at an all girl’s Jewish Day school in New York City.
“I see a sadness and I’ll ask what’s wrong. ‘My parents are fighting like cats and dogs and they just pull me in,’” Chafetz said in the video. “The kids are not barter material. Do not pull them in.”
Klein said the video is a conversation starter; she hopes it encourages people to seek help during what can be a tumultuous time. The film highlights four areas, the pain of divorce, the consequence of a high conflict divorce, the intelligent divorce and lastly, the role of the rabbis, educators and the community at large.
Alan Cohen, the only male divorcee appearing in the video, decided to participate out of respect for OHEL and because “it has the potential to help other people.”
“I could have used some advice when I got divorced,” Cohen said “Not necessarily legal advice or financial advice, just overall practical advice for what to do and what can happen.”
As a professional agunah advocate, if I had a penny (or actually, I’ll take a dollar) for every time someone told me, “but there are two sides to every story!” I would be a Jewish Bill Gates. In the many agunah cases I have worked on, I have seen get refusal in a variety of forms. Men who are no longer religious claiming they should not be required to give the get because they are not part of the Jewish community, and men who claim to be deeply religious who argue that it would be a violation of their faith to release their wives. I have seen some people abandon their children and insist that they will only give a get if they are off the hook for child support, and I have seen others passionately rage that they are only doing this for their children, so they can get the control over them they feel entitled to.
Yet, in all of these different—and yet the same—scenarios, I have seen something even more curious: Communities, who ostensibly believe in Torah, in right and wrong, and in treating all humans with dignity and respect, consistently countering with the same question: “Aren’t there two sides to every story?”
Theoretically, yes. When it comes to a divorce, there are many shades of gray, and the “truth” is probably buried somewhere under the layers of pain and distrust and litigation documents that have accumulated over the years. But when it comes to get refusal—the decision to unilaterally withhold a divorce and chain your spouse to a dead marriage—that decision is black and white. Still not convinced? I’ll explain why.
Ever since the 1970s, our culture has been talking more and more about domestic abuse. We have slowly recognized that abuse is not just about black and blue marks, but can manifest itself in emotional assaults, psychological manipulation, and financial control. Domestic abuse is not just about a smattering of rude comments, but a pattern of controlling behavior. It can take years for a victim of domestic abuse to decide to leave, and it takes noticeably longer for victims in the Jewish community. But for a Jewish woman, the largest hurdle to her escape is likely awaiting her after her departure: her struggle for a get. The get is often the last vestige of control an abuser has over his victim, and the husband’s refusal to issue a get is the final act in a long series of abusive behaviors. As a pattern of controlling behavior in which the husband repeatedly asserts his power and control over his wife by refusing to issue her a get, get refusal is undoubtedly a form of domestic abuse.
If you hear of a woman who has been beaten severely by her spouse, would we ever respond with “But there are other sides to the story!” Unlikely, because we as a society have accepted that regardless of a person’s behavior, there is no justification for beating up your spouse. Human beings are entitled to a basic amount of dignity, and such treatment is never, ever acceptable. While get refusal may not leave marks on the body, it can and does leave marks on the soul. It is a form of domestic abuse like any other, and as such is never acceptable. Period. If a couple has issues they need to work out with one another, be they finances, parenting, or anything else, there are ample forums to use to achieve a fair and just resolution of the issues: beit din, litigation, arbitration, mediation, etc. Extortion is not and should not be viewed as a reasonable means for resolving such weighty and complex issues.
Because after all, although many stories have two sides, some of them have just one: The right one; the good one; the one that fulfills the Torah’s injunction to care for the vulnerable among us. And that’s the one we should follow.
Keshet Starr holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and has spent her career working with Orthodox victims of domestic abuse.
A VICTORIAN magistrate’s decision could have an important impact on the granting of a gett (Jewish bill of divorce) if a husband refuses to do so.
In Orthodox Jewish tradition, a woman who does not receive a gett cannot remarry within the Jewish community and is considered an “agunah”, a woman “chained” to her marriage. While Australian figures are not available, there have been 462 recorded cases of gett refusal in North America in the past five years.
In a Victorian court last week, a magistrate broke new ground when she accepted a legal argument that withholding a gett constituted unlawful “psychological and emotional abuse”.
The magistrate made the legal interpretation in the case of a woman whose husband has refused to grant her a gett in the Melbourne Beth Din (MBD) unless she paid him “a substantial amount of money”, according to family lawyer Talya Faigenbaum, who represented the woman.
Faigenbaum told The AJN the couple had separated some years ago and had been through Family Court proceedings and were given final orders. In the case before the magistrate, the woman had applied for an extension of an intervention order, and gave the husband’s refusal to grant a gett as a ground for the extension. Privacy laws prohibit publication of the applicant’s name, the court’s locality and the name of the magistrate.
The court heard that despite a request from the MBD and negotiations through a rabbi, the husband insisted that the sum of money was paid in exchange for even considering granting the divorce bill.
Faigenbaum, who was handed the case by the MBD which she represents when difficult Jewish marriage issues become secular law disputes, said she decided to argue that gett refusal, as “psychological and emotional abuse”, is a form of family violence.
“This was an argument that had not been put before the Magistrates Court before,” she said of the landmark ruling. “It’s created quite a bit of excitement amongst legal circles.”
Rabbinical Council of Victoria president Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, a senior dayan (judge) of the MBD, this week welcomed the ruling. “This precedent would allow us another method of using the civil court system to help provide a gett from a recalcitrant husband.”
But he cautioned that “the involvement of the civil courts needs to be carefully applied so that it does not interfere with the requirement that a gett only be mandated and enforced by a duly constituted Beth Din”.
MBD registrar Rabbi Ian Goodhardt said the court’s ruling should instil confidence “that the Melbourne Beth Din will not sit idly by and allow people to linger without a gett without energetically pursuing all options to achieve a satisfactory resolution.”
He added, “Secondly, the option of identifying the behaviour of a spouse who is refusing to cooperate with a gett as infringing the law against domestic violence should now be considered by people in that situation, who may find that it is appropriate in their particular circumstances.”
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.
Not every marriage is successful. Despite our desire for each to be perfect, we know the truth is that there are hundreds of reasons a man and a woman, once joined in love and joy, should no longer remain together. When that happens, Judaism recognizes the need to let the marriage come to an end in a way that allows both bride and groom, husband and wife, to grieve for what “could have been” but wasn’t, for promise unrealized, and then go forward with a productive and meaningful life. The Torah envisions the reality of our deepest relationships by providing both the road map for marriage – the kesuba – and the mechanism for ending a marriage – the Get.
In recent months and years, we hear more and more of the men – learned, yeshiva-taught men – who withhold Gitten from their wives; wives who have a G-d-given right to be released from their failed marriages. Such cruelty by such men damns these agunot to a non-life.
And it is wrong.
Just how wrong can be clearly understood by an examination of the Bais Din’s elevated role in the community and the holiness of Sabbath and yom tov. Simply consider that the Bais Din does not convene on Sabbath or yom tov. At first glance, this would seem obvious. But it is closed not only for judgment but also for deliberations among the dayanim (judges) even though one could suggest that dayanim deliberating without issuing piskei din (decisions) is little different that Talmud Torah. However, the Talmud, in the latter part of Masechet Beitza (37a) which Daf Yomi recently concluded, teaches that the Bais Din does not issue judgments on Sabbath and yom tov lest they would be prompted to write the psak din and transgress the prohibition of kesiva (writing). Likewise, merely deliberating runs the risk that it may lead to their writing their thoughts and observations on a given case.
But the role of the Bais Din is not only to rule but also mete out punishment. Further, it is empowered to imprison one whom it suspects may escape in order to avoid appropriate punishment. It would seem that these Bais Din actions would be excluded from the Talmud’s prohibition of lo danin, not to issue rulings. These responsibilities and actions require no writing. Yet, quoting Shibolei Haleket, the Rema rules that it is prohibited to punish or imprison on Sabbath and yom tov, a ruling founded not on the Talmud’s positions on danin but rather because G-d ordained that punishments not be administered on Sabbath and yom tov. As Rambam teaches (Hilchot Sabbath 23:14), “we do not punish on the Sabbath… if one was sentenced to lashings or to death, we do not mete out the lashings (malkos) or execute him on the Sabbath…” The Shibolei Haleket further ruled that it is likewise forbidden to imprison one who is suspect of escaping from punishment – because imprisonment is also a form of punishment.
The Sefer Hachinuch (Vayakhel) explains the basis of this principle that all are gifted with a day of rest Sabbath that, “…It was the will of G-d to honor this day, that all should find rest in it, even the sinners and the guilty. A parable teaches that a great king summoned the people of the country to a one-day feast; a feast when he would invite every man, bar none, to the celebration even though immediately after the feast day he would sit in judgment (of some who were present at the feast). So in this matter, HaShem commanded us to hallow and honor the Sabbath day for our good and our merit.”
This too is for the honor of the day.
Even the administration of punishment which may not entail any chilul Sabbath is forbidden on the Sabbath. To imprison one who may escape punishment is not deliberation of law; it is not adjudication of law which is rabbinically forbidden; it is also not administering punishment which is Biblically forbidden, “that the judges should not carry out judgment on the Sabbath” (Chinuch 114). It is merely subsumed in the logic and grace of the prohibition to administer punishments – so that all may equally enjoy G-d’s desire for all to rest, whoever they are.
Such a blessing and gift! That all should enjoy the beauty of Sabbath! Imagine then what it means to learn that there is an exception to this rule. A single, sole exception. The one exception deemed by Chazal as possessing an intention and goal to cause such misery that he can be imprisoned on Sabbath, is not a murderer, is not a thief, and is not even one who has waged war.
Who then has committed such a grievous sin that even the blessing of enjoying Sabbath as a free man can be denied him? Who is considered so depraved that he is not welcome to G-d’s feast unless and until he fulfills his G-dly and human obligation? Who is called out even when the thief and criminal are not? It is the husband who seeks to escape and leave his wife without a valid get, an agunah.
The Mishna Berura is emphatic, v’ein b’klal zeh – not included in this general rule [that we may not imprison one whom we suspect will escape] – im echad rotzeh l’vroach k’dei lehagen ishto – if one wants to escape in order to leave his wife an Agunah – mutar haya l’chovsho (it is permitted to imprison him).
It is only this one that the bais din is allowed – no! obligated! – to detain on the Sabbath. His imprisonment is not regarded as punishment which is forbidden on Sabbath, but rather an emergency permit granted to the bais din to assure that this vengeful, spiteful fellow is denied an escape route which denies the woman her G-d-given right to go on with her life. This one can be detained on Sabbath in order to assure that he not destroy countless future Sabbath feasts of this unwanted wife.
Again, it is understandable that there is bitterness after a marriage fails. There is grieving for a life envisioned and promised that did not come to fruition. But that bitterness, that grief, that unfulfilled promise, cannot and does not allow a man to become a virtual jailor of his wife’s future.
We can all weep for the marriage that does not succeed. But our sadness necessarily turns to astonishment and then anger when we learn that the husband, far from acknowledging and accepting this reality, lashes out in anger and vindictiveness by withholding the Get (divorce decree that must be given by husband to wife for a halakhic divorce, ed.).
Such a man who then seeks to flee so his poor wife remain an Agunah is NOT a category of punishment (onesh) forbidden by Torah law. It is not a category of deliberation/adjudication of law (din) forbidden by rabbinic law. It is, in fact, a category unto itself and, as such, presents the Bais Din with the power and authority to put the man in his “place” in order to protect the legitimate rights of the potential Agunah.
Chazal are clear, being an Agunah is an unspeakable curse, one that necessitates the suspension of this Sabbath rule.
That our tradition and ways are consistently concerned and sympathetic to the Agunah is made even more evident when Poskim discuss this exception to the rule regarding imprisonment on Sabbath. They cite an additional example of one who may also be detained on Sabbath. In Mishna Berura, it is written, “…that it is likewise mutar (permitted) to receive testimony from a dangerously ill witness [who may very well die, unless we receive his testimony immediately, on Sabbath] about a woman whose husband died, where we are concerned that no other witness will subsequently be found to verify that the husband indeed died.”
It is clear that halacha is determined to find a way to free a married woman from remaining in a perpetual state of limbo, without being able to move on with her life – going so far as to allow the imprisonment of a husband on Sabbath if he refuses to provide his wife with a get or by detaining a dangerously ill man in order to receive his testimony regarding the death of a husband. In both cases, the intention is clear – to ensure a way for the wife to move on and live a meaningful, happy life, unshackled by the sadness of a failed marriage or lost husband.
Jewish law does not tolerate allowing a woman to remain chained. It clearly stands for justice for the Agunah.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an author, educator, and communal worker.
I recently attended the International Agunah Day Event in Jerusalem. An Agunah (literally a chained wife) is one whose husband deserts her and refuses to give her a Get, thus preventing her from remarrying. The leading Rabbis in every generation have tried to find solutions, even far-fetched ones, for the distress of Agunot.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger helped to release an Agunah with the explanation that, “The time is right to release a Jewish wife from being an Agunah, and Jewish women should not be Hefker (ownerless victims who are trapped and might be led to sin). Thus we are going to be lenient with an Agunah.”
The Maharam of Rotenberg in his Responsa goes so far to rescue an Agunah by invoking the concept of “Mekach Taoot” (“a marriage under false pretenses”). Had the wife known that her husband was so cruel, she never would have married him. Therefore the act of Kiddushin (marriage) is annulled “L’Mafrea” (retroactively) using the concept of Hefker Beis Din Hefker (what Beis Din declares null and void is null and void). The Maharam also explains, “Kol Hamekadesh al daatei d’Rabbanan Mekadesh” “Everyone who contracts a Jewish marriage does so with the consent and agreement of the Rabbis.”
These great Rabbis of the past were no less G-d fearing than the Dayanim of today. They were also familiar with the warning of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7) against hastiness in judgment, ” A Dayan (Rabbinic judge) must always see himself as though the gates of hell are open beneath him”. However, the Maharam and Rabbi Akiva Eiger in their awareness of their great responsibility were not afraid to seek solutions for complex questions about Agunot. Moreover, according to Kabbalah, releasing an Agunah brings the Final Redemption closer.
Today we also have the widespread syndrome of Jewish wives being Hefker and denied a Get. Solving their problem according to Halachah is one of the major Rabbinic challenges of today. Israeli law has authorized the Rabbinical Courts to send a husband, who denies a get to his wife, to prison. However, there are Dayanim (Rabbinic Judges) who are opposed to such an enforcement, for fear of a Get Kofui – a divorce, granted under coercion, which is not considered valid. Consequently there are many cruel husbands who exploit this situation for prolonged abuse against their chained and captive wives.
This is a complicated and complex issue. On the one hand, a Get, imposed on the husband against his will, is invalid according to the Halacha. On the other hand, the Rambam rules concerning a husband who refuses to give his wife a Get, “He is beaten until he says, ‘I agree’ “. The Rambam says that such a Get is kosher and valid. This seeming contradiction is explained by the existence or lack thereof of a decree of Beis Din requiring the husband to divorce his wife. Most opinions agree that without such a prior Rabbinical Court decree, even mild persuasion might threaten the non-coerced requirement of the Get.
With such a Rabbinical Court decree, requiring the husband to divorce his wife, persuasion, coercion and even force are considered valid to bring the husband to really want to comply with the decree of the Beis Din and give a Get of his own free will.
Today’s Rabbanim are divided over the types of sanctions which, according to Halacha, can be imposed on husbands who deny their wives a Get. The unresolved nature of these differences of Rabbinical opinions has caused many wives to live as captive women to unscrupulous and cruel husbands who hold them in chains to blackmail them to receive a Get. Many Rabbinical Judges seem to ignore the directive of the great Maharsha in the Talmud Bavli Yevamot who says, “To free an Agunah our Rabbis invoked many far reaching leniencies.”
The Maharsha concludes that,” G-d must grant courage to Rabbinical Judges so that trapped and captive suffering wives will be blessed with peace and domestic tranquility.”
Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
All we need to do to solve the Agunah problem for the next generations is to ensure the widespread use of the “halachic prenuptial agreement,” right?
Pre-nups are agreements by which the husband, who is obligated by Jewish law to support his wife (mezonot), voluntarily obligates himself to give his wife a sum (usually about $200 per day) for every day he fails to appear before a bet din for purposes of giving her a get. Indeed, these agreements can be enforced in a court of law in the manner of any executed contract. The pre-nup, however, addresses only those cases where the husband refuses to appear before a bet din and give a get.
Yet to be addressed is this question: What happens when the husband gets to the bet din? What happens when he demands, as a precondition to his giving the get, that all matters related to the divorce – including property distribution, support, and custody – be submitted to the bet din, not to a secular court, for adjudication? Worse, what happens when he declares to the bet din that he will “voluntarily” give the get on condition that his wife waive all her interest in the property and/or reasonable support?
In effect, such a demand compels the bet din to serve as a go-between rather than an arbitrator, and pressure is placed on the wife to accept the husband’s grossly inequitable terms in order to obtain her get. Unfortunately, such a demand is entirely in keeping with Jewish law orhalacha; in fact, there is a stringenthalachic injunction against submitting any civil matter against another Jew to a non-Jewish court.
This demand is the unspoken subtext that, my experience proves, continues to bind women in agunah’s chains.
I do not address myself here to the extreme cases in which mean-spirited men inflict anguish on their estranged wives. Nor do I address myself to the oft-repeated refrain that batei din are corrupt. Rabbi-bashing is not a constructive use of resources, especially since batei din are integral to Jewish life, particularly on the issue of the get, and are here to stay.
My focus, rather, is on the common and pervasive use of batei din, by many men, to secure the kind of inequitable financial settlement they could never obtain in a secular court of law.
Marriage under secular law (unlike under Jewish law) is deemed an economic partnership. Assets accrued during the course of a marriage are equally, or, as in New York, equitably, distributed upon dissolution of the partnership. Jewish law does not recognize assets accrued during the marriage to be “marital” or shared property. Instead, property and money acquired by the husband alone or the couple together belongs solely to the husband. (A business that the wife alone created and managed may be acquired by her under certain conditions.)
What this means is that if the wife had been taking care of the children while the husband was running a business, under Jewish law she is not entitled to any portion of that business. Nor is she entitled to any maintenance (formerly alimony) or retirement benefits, as a man has no obligations whatsoever to his divorced wife. His sole responsibility is to support his young children (to the age of six) and to provide for their education. The only property to which she is entitled is that which she brought to the marriage; her dowry; separate property; or that which she received by inheritance or gift during the marriage.
In other words, he says to her, “O.K., honey, you want your get? Fine! But I will only give it to you if you do not go to secular court.” Even if the wife has already sued and obtained a civil divorce and court adjudication as to all financial issues, she may have no choice but to acquiesce in re-opening all issues before the bet din on pain of not getting her get.
Is it any wonder, then, that most men prefer to have their financial divorce issues decided in accordance with Jewish law – even men who would never consider submitting their own business disputes to a bet din? The coupling of personal greed and religious justification has thus given birth to a perverted use of batei din.
In earlier times, the ketubah was meant to provide for the divorced wife and is, in fact, a pre-nup. But at some point in history it lost its efficacy and has been transformed into a liturgical document, especially among Ashkenazi Jews. (Some Sephardim negotiate the ketubah seriously and specify large sums in the event the man wants to divorce his wife – one or two million dollars rather than the proverbial “two hundred zuzim.”)
But today we are confronted by a terrible void – one that is exploited by many men who know they have no halachic obligation to support a divorced wife while the wife is bereft of any claims to marital property.
What can be done to remedy this dire state of affairs? As our Sages tell us in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to refrain from attempting to do so.”
We who are experienced attorneys must engage with the rabbinic courts to ensure that the procedural safeguards to which batei din are subject, both under New York State Rules of Arbitration and under halacha, are enforced.Among those safeguards: no ex-parte communications between parties orto’anim (rabbinic advocates) and the dayanim/ arbitrators; discovery of all financial matters must be produced or subpoenaed; evidence presented to judges is also to be provided to the other parties; witnesses are to be subject to cross-examination.
Additionally, we licensed attorneys must master a course of study in practical halacha so that we can effectively argue cases before rabbinic courts. Since the rabbinic courts generally act as courts of equity and base their decisions on peshara (compromise) rather than din (the strict letter of the law), our professional training and presence is especially warranted.A course of study is available in Israel to train to’anot (female advocates who are not lawyers) to appear before the rabbinic courts only. Yet there is no institution anywhere in the Diaspora that offers something similar.
There are many male and female attorneys who are conversant with Jewish texts and adept in the art of persuasion. Our clients who must submit to the jurisdiction of a bet din would be better served if we were also trained in the halachot governing divorce and bet din procedure.
As attorneys, we are held to a professional standard of ethics and are empowered to invoke the rule of law in safeguarding proper procedure before a bet din under the rules of arbitration. Will this solve the problem? No – but it will go a long way toward improving the professionalism of batei din, and that is an essential part of the solution.