The Times of Israel
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.