Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State by Susan Weiss and Netty C. Gross-Horowitz (Brandeis University Press, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Series on Jewish Women, $40) contains many shocking stories about women’s attempts to secure a divorce in Israeli rabbinical courts. In perhaps the most harrowing of these, a woman seeking to end her emotionally and physically abusive marriage was relentlessly stalked by her recalcitrant husband during the five-year divorce ordeal. In order to prove to the rabbinical judges presiding over her case that she was promiscuous — and therefore undeserving of any basic rights — her husband hired a private detective to record her every move, including, unbeknownst to her, videotaping her in the privacy of her home. The husband presented to the rabbinical judges a 15-minute video recording of this poor woman walking around in her own home in her underwear, when she thought she was alone. The rabbinical judges, rather than question the cruelty and legality of the husband’s actions towards his wife and the violation of her basic right to privacy, decided to watch the entire recording from start to finish. The woman — the only woman in a courtroom full of men — sat there helpless, powerless, mortified and completely objectified, as the rabbis and her husband colluded to reduce her to nothing with their ruthless gaze.
Weiss and Gross-Horowitz’s important book expertly chronicles the stories of six agunot, literally “chained women” — women who wait for years to be released from their unwanted marriages. The authors vividly portray the many problems involved in the divorce process in Israel, in which all divorces of all Jews must go through the state-backed rabbinical court. This unbridled rabbinic power combines with state legal authority to violate some of the most basic rights of Jewish women in Israel. The narratives about women’s destroyed lives are interwoven with incisive legal-halakhic analysis, Israeli legislative history and political philosophy. The women, who represent a wide spectrum of educational, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds — religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, native and immigrant — are all tortured and tormented twice: once by husbands bent on causing them pain, and a second time by a rabbinical court that empowers abusers and completely fails to
Each story represents a different aspect of the court’s astounding dysfunction. One woman’s husband failed to appear in court for 10 years, and yet he still had more rights than she did. Another woman was married for all of three months to a man who was widely known to be mentally unstable and perhaps a psychopath, but 15 years later, as she approaches the age of 40, she is still waiting for her gett, the Jewish writ of divorce. One woman tried to avoid all this by getting married in Cyprus — but the rabbinical court coopted authority and still demanded that she receive a gett. As the authors unequivocally demonstrate, the rabbinical court regularly and systematically violates women’s rights to freedom of conscience, equal treatment, privacy, due process, property, liberty, and even the right to marry, without any regard for the lives that are ruined in the process.
In Israel now, there is no available mechanism for “secular” marriage or divorce, regardless of one’s religion. The authors put forth a vision for a different system regarding all issues of “personal status” as they are called. “To put an end to these transgressions, the state-backed Orthodox rabbinic court monopoly must be disbanded and replaced by a rich and vibrant mosaic of voluntary rabbinic courts that will stand alongside a transparent, secular, unified and unabashedly liberal civil system of marriage and divorce that protects the human rights of all citizens,” they write.
The authors themselves come from an Orthodox background and are very respectful of the halakhic system. Susan Weiss was the founder of Yad L’Isha, an agunah advocacy organization of Ohr Torah Stone, and also the founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, which helps free agunot using tort law, and Netty Gross-Horowitz is a senior writer at The Jerusalem Report. The authors propose instituting civil marriage and divorce in Israel in order to protect these basic human rights and advocate for a complete separation of religion and state. By turning religious adherence into a matter of choice rather than a force of state coercion, their proposal may have the effect of not only saving countless women’s lives, but also saving Judaism from the destructive forces in the form of state-empowered rabbinical judges.
Elana Maryles Sztokman is the executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Women’s Studies.