The Jewish Press.com
Jewish law mandates that either spouse can request a get but only the husband can grant one. This technicality in the Jewish divorce process has led to nefarious manipulations by husbands who wish to gain the upper hand in divorce settlements or permanently punish and control their wives.
Such a flagrant imbalance of power enables a get-threat shakedown. Women, some with many children, are faced with impossible demands, forced to yield homes, assets, even custody; coerced into accepting drastic reductions in spousal and child support payments; driven to rely on welfare and social services to survive. Unless women relinquish their rights, the get is often withheld. This deliberate flaying of Jewish law is clearly contrary to its designed intent.
Rabbis who should be reining these men in, enjoining them from using bullying and coercive threats of withholding the get, frequently act as active or passive agents facilitating the husbands’ outrageous demands in bet din. Even well intentioned rabbis encourage women to yield so they can obtain their freedom. The system is tragically out of balance in the diaspora – the number of agunot is on the rise and the abuse of the system by recalcitrant husbands has become common practice.
Many women receive ransom calls, usually through emissaries of the husband, the indirect intimidation stance of cowards. My husband’s rabbi, privy to details of the abuse I’d endured, had no qualms about requesting $250, 000 for the get – and that was twenty years ago. Several years ago my father-in-law said it would take $500, 000 just to coax his son to the negotiation table, and that offer was contingent on my taking out an ad in a major paper begging his forgiveness for all the horrible things I had done to him.
Yes, I got custody of our child; yes, he got supervised visitation. That’s what happens when you can’t control your rages or stick to the mandates of the court – but that’s not his fault, its mine. He remains the martyred, offended party.
A get was never intended to be used as a weapon or a bargaining chip. All custodial and monetary issues are resolvable, either through arbitration, settlement, p’sak in bet din, or court mandate.
Can you imagine being deprived, in the prime of life, of conjugal relations, intimacy, and a home life for years and years? The beauty of two people living in harmony works when a couple creates a loving, cooperative, respectful life together. However, when marriages don’t work, the family home can become acrimonious and the marriage unsustainable. The Torah made provisos for such cases. Yet many judge a woman’s choice to exit a bad marriage. They feel she should weather the worst, go for more marital therapy, stay for the sanctity of marriage and the sake of the children… What naiveté to think a marriage has to be happy!
Sometimes marriages just need to end. It’s a fact of life. Common causes are financial strife, deceit, infidelity, or couples who’ve grown universes apart, their differences irreconcilable. There are those who endure extreme physical and emotional abuse. Most are women, afraid to leave; many, in fact, stay longer than they should, their bruises not always visible to outsiders.
Children deserve a stable, nurturing, uncontentious environment, not a hostile battleground etched onto their indelible consciousness, shaping their future relationships. Some couples erroneously think that conceiving another child together will somehow mend the family. It only builds the casualty count. When a marriage is dead, there is a moral imperative to facilitate a divorce and to establish the proper separation mechanisms for the two parties.
To date, there is very little recourse for women in my position. Whatever funds we’ve managed to squirrel away are spent with astounding diminution on litigation in bet din, civil court, or both. My husband joined a cadre of recalcitrants, expert in strategic prolonged pro se litigation, advocating “father’s rights” but unable to stay the course of court-appointed forensics or adhere to court-ordered visitation schedules. My life savings went quickly down the rabbit hole during years of bet din and court procedures. Many husbands cleverly hide assets and women are stuck raising children alone, juggling job, motherhood and household with limited assistance, bereft of funds, struggling and vulnerable.
As time passed and the threat of “No Get Ever” became my reality, I heard several cavalier remarks along the lines of “Why don’t you just have someone beat the guy up?” The urban myth had some recurrent circulation among agunot, but very few entertained the idea seriously; it was both illegal and risky. I’ll tell you what I was thinking: He robbed me of my life, took my neshamah out with his vindictiveness. For twenty years and counting I’ve had no man to share my life, no ability to bring more children into the world. I’m looked at askew by my community, with people uncertain about whether they should support me or avoid me like the plague they might catch, and I live on the periphery, existentially alone…waiting.
I’m a good person, but don’t think I didn’t fantasize about hurting my husband back as the stress of prolonged litigation wore on, the loneliness became unbearable, and the chains rattled loud enough to chafe my life raw. Never much of a gambler and all too cognizant of the rules of consequence, I wouldn’t risk my child’s safety or risk depriving him of his mother. Retaliation would have been inevitable, because retaliation and control are what my husband lives for and thrives on.
And though I could imagine inflicting pain on my husband, I could not envision harming the father of my child or looking into my son’s eyes knowing that violence was the means to my freedom.
No one in Klal Yisrael should feel so isolated or desperate that brute force becomes the go-to means of expediency in the procurement of social justice. The ancient Jewish code of law stresses compassion wherever possible. Our moral and ethical compass can be an instigator for real change through the living well of Torah. The desperate actions of a few who resort to drastic halachic measures to obtain a get from men who refuse to give one only highlight the exasperation of these women and rabbis and batei din. The allegations against those rabbis should be seen as a call to action rather than an opportunity to vilify the few who try to break the status quo and change the state of our imprisonment – while everyone else sits on the sidelines waiting for something to happen.
We need to mobilize our resources in a unified way to rectify this abusive mockery of our halachic system. We are the children of the Torah, steeped in rich Talmudic analytic precedence, interpreting law and its applications with analytical prowess dipped in the honey of compassion. Rabbinic law expounds and deciphers, adapting ancient laws to new circumstantial variances, technological advances, and even new twists on subversive amorality. How long do agunot have to wait? How long must we be left barren and forsaken on the roadside? Do we need the Messiah to deliver a rabbinic consensus on this matter?
We need to find better ways to free agunot. In Israel, men are fined for non-compliance with bet din orders, some have rights and privileges rescinded, some are jailed. In the U.S., the Get Law and prenups have been somewhat useful. We have halachic precedence for annulling; what rabbis initiate, such as kiddushin, they can undo and annul. From rishonim to acharonim, notables like the Node B’Yehuda and more recently Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, freed some agunot on a case-by-case basis.
The Rackman get initiative had some halachic basis but lacked consensus and was problematic on several fronts. There is now word of a new bet bin formed by the erudite Rabbi Simcha Krauss and supported by the respected posek Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, chief justice of the rabbinical high court in Jerusalem. The primary function of this bet din will be to address the agunah crisis using “systematic halachic solutions.” Let’s hope their efforts will help agunot trapped in the quagmire of this injustice.
As Jews, we must send a clear message that twisting tenets originally meant to safeguard will not be tolerated. Recalcitrants should be shunned by the community, made to feel uncomfortable and accountable while their agunot remain stuck. If there is a siruv, ostracize; forbid them from participating in prayers and communal gatherings. Every lion of every community and Torah institution should be instructing students and congregants that the get is not a weapon, not a means to extort – period, the end.
Rabbis should insist that every religious marriage ceremony be preceded with a prenup. When a couple goes to bet din and dissolution of the marriage is clearly the only alternative, the get should be given and held in escrow, with details of custody, visitation and financial arrangements to be hammered out via arbitration, p’sak, or court order. No matter how deserving, justified and righteous the husband is in his claims, the get should not be withheld for monetary or custodial recompense.
There should be zero tolerance for buying a heter meah rabbonim for $10,000 and upward because a husband doesn’t like how the bet din process is trending. There should be a ceiling on costs for bet din proceedings. Sitting rabbis should be paid regular salaries by the community so that monies are never exchanged by interested parties or one side given an advantage via fiscal staying power or powers to procure through payment.
Coupling of the get with the civil divorce process, as acrimony builds, is counterproductive. It transmogrifies rock throwing into radiological dirty-bomb detonation in a malevolent minute. When the fireworks are over, most settlements are fairly boilerplate and predictable once everyone finally comes to the table.
Personally, I have done all I can to obtain my get through the legal and halachic system. In the interim, I live each day with gratitude and joy, having attained an internal liberation that no controlling misogynist can set asunder. I mothered lovingly, was resourceful, and creative. My child never lacked emotionally or physically, and merited growing up in an environment of normalcy that co-parenting in toxicity can never sustain. All those who know my son adore him. He is a beautiful human being, whole, bright, caring and sensitive, possessing wise insights into life and people.
I thank God every day for all His blessings, and live life around the abyss. I leave bitterness for the “victimized” husband who still believes he has the power to truncate my life.
Batya Israel is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist whose focus is on social justice issues.