Growing up, I had a friend whose father refused to give her mother a religious Jewish divorce, known as a gett. “The rabbis are helping my father destroy my mother,” she would rage. Twenty-five years later, little has changed.
Simi and her mother abide by Talmudic and subsequent rabbinic rulings that state if a husband is unwilling or unable to give a gett, his wife becomes an agunah — a “chained woman,” forever tied to him in marriage. If she remarries in a secular ceremony, without having obtained a Jewish divorce, any children from her subsequent union are considered mamzerim, born of adultery, permitted to marry only other mamzerim. Husbands, in contrast, face no such stigma. Halakha, Jewish law, positions men to enact marriage and divorce through free-willed speech and action, giving each man an upper hand to use as he sees fit.
Many husbands use their power to refuse to give their wives a gett because they want money, changes in child custody provisions, control — and to exact punishment. These behaviors are well-documented in books, films, Jewish court (beit din) files, and in the experiences women share. But these are not the only kinds of abuse. A husband may also coerce his wife into accepting a gett so that he can remarry in a religious ceremony and evade the child support and marital-asset sharing that a civil divorce court could mandate.
These two divergent outcomes of Jewish divorce law are the stories of Tamar Epstein and Joyce Semel.
Tamar Epstein’s agunah status has frequently been featured in the media. Her case is singled out as press-worthy because Aharon Feldman, her gett-refusing husband, is tax counsel for the Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, and Epstein has become publicly active by working with the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) to direct a social ostracism campaign against Aharon Feldman.
In contrast to the public support for Epstein, no Jewish organization supports Joyce Semel. Her estranged husband, wanting to begin a new life without dividing marital assets or providing child support, intimidated her into accepting a gett, she reported to Lilith. Since in the U.S. the separation of church and state allows the two marriages to exist in their respective domains, her husband was able to marry another woman in a religious ceremony — easily finding a Modern Orthodox rabbi to officiate his wedding without requiring him to be civilly divorced.
“After I requested a forensic accounting [to appraise her husband’s assets], I received a phone call from my brother.” Joyce explained. “‘The rabbis are after you’, he said.” After being told that a thug was on her husband’s payroll, Joyce called a rabbi she respected for help. According to Joyce, this rabbi said, “Accept the gett; the man is dangerous.” She accepted.
After 10 years of earning as a partner in his family business, Joyce’s estranged husband now claims he makes poverty wages. Looking for help, Joyce continually tells people her story. One of her supporters, Jewish scholar and feminist activist Arlene Agus, explained that, “The intractability of the problem causes people to blame women like Joyce for their predicaments.” People find it impossible to understand how Joyce’s husband could have remarried, and Joyce has found that since she is not an agunah, her problem is not considered “Jewish.” No Jewish funds exist for Joyce to hire lawyers, and no legal agencies will give her free representation solely for dividing marital assets and child support. Joyce is left representing herself in court while caring for the couple’s three young children.
Tamar Epstein and Joyce Semel each followed the directives of respected rabbis. As all women who take part in halakhic marriage and divorce, they have a common disability. Whether they receive a gett or not, women remain chained to a system that protects a man’s free will as the God-given defining feature of marriage and divorce.
Although this male-dominant system underlies women’s agunah problem, agunah activists organize to prod recalcitrant husbands to give a gett, reinforcing their mastery. Another tactic — this one aimed at prevention — is the prenuptial agreement, now touted as the best tool available to prevent aginut (the state of being an agunah) Even if, miraculously, all husbands who signed prenups agreed to grant a gett automatically if the marriage dissolves, nothing prevents the abuse of women through the Jewish marriage-divorce machinery, as Joyce’s situation attests. While they beseech rabbis for an overall solution, most agunah activists celebrate each gett win and prenup signing, extolling evolution as a model for change in a system of law that gives men rights to abuse women.
According to Susan Aranoff, a founding member of Agunah International Inc., “The rabbis’ allegiance is first and foremost adhering to the halakha as they perceive it. In that mindset, if they extract a gett by getting the woman to give up her marital assets, child support payments, and paying large sums of money to the husband, they feel they saved this woman from being an agunah. If gett is in the context of injustice, that’s fine for them. Injustice is simply an inevitable result of halakha.”
Women’s education on the sacredness of textual tradition, fear of ostracism, and steadfast faith preclude disobedience from taking shape as a social justice movement. Jewish women celebrate marriage contracts that give all dissolution rights to their husbands without considering what may lie in store for them. Susan Aranoff mused, “My dream is that women are told under the chuppah that ‘If your husband infects you with AIDS, beats you, or rapes your children these are not grounds for a gett. Do you agree to this marriage contract?’ That might wake women up.” While books, classes, and rituals abound on Jewish marriage and divorce, the effects these traditions could have on engendering Jewish women’s will is shut down as a kind of Pandora’s box.
Rabbinic interpretation and protection of the supremacy of male will to marriage and divorce has created generations of women’s and children’s suffering. Yet, Aranoff’s advice to women “not to marry under Orthodox auspices until the weapon of the gett is out of the hands of the man” has not been taken up as a rallying call. Rather, women are encouraged to work within the system. Consider a scene in the 2004 documentary film “Sentenced to Marriage.” Tamar, newly Orthodox, followed her rabbi’s advice to marry a man she barely knew. This husband regularly duct-taped their children’s mouths closed when they cried. After years of violence, extended by endless Beit Din rejections, she tells her female gett advocate that her life is no life, and that she no longer cares if she receives a gett. Tamar understands that she can stop the abuse by removing herself from the process. Stricken, the advocate tells her to continue fighting.
Women’s pressure on other women to abide by gett laws occurs all the time. “Women Unchained,” a 2011 documentary, tells multiple agunot horror stories. What makes this film’s education project ultimately hopeless is to hear one of the filmmakers say that even if a woman is not Orthodox, she should get a gett if she is divorcing. “You never know what community your children will find themselves in and who they will want to marry. Think of your children,” she implored. This prevalent attitude places Jewish women, young, old, religious, and secular into the hands of a male rabbinate that sanctions male-only free will. Begging for freedom reinforces enslavement. Jewish women need an Exodus.
Devorah Shubowitz is an anthropology PhD candidate at Indiana University. Her research focuses on how women’s Torah study constitutes gender norms in gender egalitarian Jewish communities.