by Layah Lipsker
It always fascinated me that Jewish law allows for divorce, even without cause. With all the hoopla about finding your “bashert,” the one person who completes your soul, it would seem reasonable for the Torah to prohibit divorce. “Stick it out,” you might think the G-d of Israel would say. “The Chosen People should know a thing or two about choosing right the first time.” And yet, there is an entire Talmudic tractate called “gittin” that describes the Jewish way to get out of a marriage. At the center of the Jewish divorce ceremony is the Get, a handwritten writ of divorce given by the husband to the wife. A religious process that facilitates divorce underscores the Jewish values of self-determination, compassion and forgiveness. For most couples, a Jewish closure to their marriage can be comforting and even healing. But sadly, the legal nuances of the Get proceedings can chain some women to dead marriages and leave them vulnerable to abusive spouses. Jewish law requires the consent of both parties to proceed with divorce, but it must be initiated by the husband. In a growing number of cases, men use the threat of Get refusal as a bargaining chip in financial or custodial negotiations.
Just ask Beth, a single mom in Newton, who recently paid $30,000 to her ex-husband in exchange for her Get. Or Hannah of Marblehead, who fled her Israeli husband more than two decades ago, leaving Jerusalem with her newborn child. Her son was 17 when her husband finally granted her a Get. Despite their civil divorces, Hannah and Beth were considered legally married and could not remarry in a Jewish ceremony until receiving their Gets.
Neither of these women is Orthodox. Get refusal is a domestic abuse issue that exists in every segment of our Jewish community. But for religious women, the stakes are even higher. In the Chassidic community in which I grew up, these women cannot even date without a Get in hand. They quietly resign themselves to lives of loneliness.
For most of Jewish history, a classic “agunah” (literally, chained woman) was a woman whose husband never returned from war. Without a body, there was no proof of death, leaving the woman in a tragic state of limbo, unable to move on with her life. With a rising divorce rate in the Jewish community, women often obtain the status of “agunah” by way of Get refusal, a powerful tool in the hands of an abusive spouse. In Israel, where all marriages and divorces must go through the religious rabbinical courts, the rate of Get refusal by both Orthodox and secular men is climbing. In a recent study, one in three women divorcing in Israel is subject to threats of Get refusal and extortion. Sadly, most of these women are young mothers leaving a first marriage. Without a Get, their future is uncertain.
In my experience as an agunah activist, I see women willing to give up financial resources or their right to child support in order to escape bad marriages. The future of these women and their children is compromised, often in the name of Jewish law. As a passionate feminist and observant Jew, that is deeply troubling to me. I am grateful that the rabbinic community is joining forces with advocates to promote solutions for Jewish families. One preventative measure is the use of a prenuptial agreement, requiring a Get if there is a civil divorce. The halachic (Jewish legal) prenup was co-authored by Dr. Rochel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate, and my partner in creating a website to support agunot and educate women on the Jewish divorce process. As a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I am working with the HBI and Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Boston Bet Din, to create “The Agunah Taskforce of Greater Boston.”
These prenups have been upheld in civil courts in New York and Connecticut. However, not all rabbis require couples to sign the prenup, and this solution is only a preventative measure. Sadly, a systematic rabbinic solution to the agunah problem remains elusive. It is within the power of a rabbinical court to free a woman by invalidating the original marriage contract, thus eliminating the need for the Get (a process known as mekach taut). A rabbinical court can also annul a marriage without the consent of a recalcitrant spouse (hafkaat kidushin). These powers are used sparingly, however, and must meet nuanced halachic standards. Most women suffering from Get refusal have no access to halachic resolutions and some have recently turned to social media to exert pressure on their ex-husbands. In New York, two rabbis were arrested and charged with kidnapping and torturing a husband refusing to grant a Get. These rabbis were hired and paid by the wife, who hoped to finally end her own suffering. In the absence of systematic reform, women will resort to dire measures to obtain their freedom.
Total consensus on a perfect solution may be impossible in the current climate of Jewish legal debate. Nonetheless, I say, “bring it on.” The recent rise of female Torah scholarship adds much needed fuel to the halachic conversation on issues that affect women. Debate is not the problem. It is part of the solution. Our goal must be to create a large enough network such that women threatened with Get refusal will have a place to turn. We must find rabbis who will release them from their dead marriages, and defend their future children from the pernicious claim of illegitimacy under Jewish law. As a mother of four daughters, I cannot afford to stand at the sidelines of this debate. Neither can you.
Like good Jewish women everywhere, Layah Kranz Lipsker wears many hats. She is co-founder and educational director for Chabad of the North Shore, and is currently a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. As a mother of six, she wears her favorite hat at home in Swampscott.