Rabbis Demand a “Public Outcry” on Agunot

“Chava,” from Portland, Oregon, reports that her husband demanded $5 million dollars in exchange for a get. “Yetta” from Spring Valley, New York, says she was given her official document of Jewish divorce only after she relinquished an order of protection against her husband; he subsequently entered her home and “nearly murdered” her, she reports. When “Shaina” from Long Island, New York, went to two rabbis in order to secure her divorce, they made public the details of her marital life and led to her loss of custody of her children. These cases of blackmail and other misconduct against agunot—”chained” women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce—are taken from the files of the Supreme Rabbinic Court of America, a group of Orthodox rabbis in New York City who have come together to use Jewish law to free these women. For the first time in decades, and in direct conflict with other Orthodox communities, these rabbis—of course all male—are reviving processes of annulment in order to free women from abusive marriages.

“Jewish law does not require that Jewish women remain the prisoners of such sadistic fiends,” wrote the directors of Agunah Inc., an organization of women led by Susan Aranoff, Honey Rackman and Henni Goldstein that was organized to help women fight for divorce and that has been supporting the efforts of the court.

The stories that the court, or beit din, released this spring recount case after case in which women seeking divorce for reasons of psychological and physical abuse were denied a Jewish divorce by their husbands. The stories are brutal, recounting beatings, rape, threats of murder and more. A number come from women whose husbands are serving decades-long jail sentences and will not release them. Worse, they show husbands engaging in blackmail for money, children or sexual favors. Finally, these reports show rabbis collaborating in such schemes.

Rabbis of one divorce court, said “Deena,” told her to relinquish all monetary demands against her husband— alimony, child support, etc.—and give up custody and visitation rights in exchange for the get. They “counseled me to think of myself as a Holocaust survivor who was fortunate to survive with my life and the get.”

The beit din and some women are accusing other rabbis of cooperating with husbands in this blackmail purely for financial gain. “Let’s face it,” commented Rabbi Terbiyahu Gilner, a member of the court. “Since they’re normally paid $300 an hour—and these cases can drag on for days, often for years—my colleagues have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. . . . To me, their motivation is obvious.”

The court and its supporters have taken heat for their actions. They were rebuked by prominent Orthodox rabbis at this year’s Feminism & Orthodoxy Conference in New York. Norma Baumel Joseph, a Canadian scholar and the Orthodox feminist activist who assisted in making Canada’s national divorce statutes responsive to the needs of agunot, has written that she will not send her clients to the court for divorce because “a divorce that is not recognized, that will leave them in an adulterous bind, is not a solution.”

The concern Joseph is addressing is a serious one for women who receive the court’s annulment: if the annulment is not recognized widely, women who remarry may find themselves considered adulterers, and may find that their children by the subsequent marriage are considered illegitimate.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Moshe Antelman, chief justice of the court, suggests that the battle must now be waged in public. “We now realize that only education and public outcry can end this physical and emotional abuse of thousands of women every year.”