Women Unbound

Breaking the chains of Jewish divorce law

Women in Chains
One, night, Rachel’s husband locked her in the bedroom of their Tel-Aviv apartment, forced their three young children into the kitchen, turned on the gas, and locked the door. He told Rachel he would kill the children if she didn’t give him money to buy drugs. Since her husband had already taken all the money she had, Rachel could do nothing but scream as she heard her children coughing and choking. Fortunately, the neighbors heard her and called the police. Her husband was jailed for nine months, after which he was back, doing drugs and beating her and the kids. After he broke her nose for the second time, Rachel took her children and fled to the battered women’s shelter in Herzliya. She filed for divorce.

That, she says, is when her ordeal started.

“Every time we went to the rabbinical court, my husband, who was high most of the time, would say the magic words: that he wanted ‘shalom bayit [peace in the home].’ I told them all I wanted was a divorce, but they never listened to me. Over the course of six years they told me thirty different times that we should try to make peace.”

In Israel, where civil marriages and divorces don’t exist, a divorce decree— a get—can be issued only through the rabbinical courts. Further, only a man may instigate a get. In order for a get to be valid, three factors are required: the approval of the rabbinical court, the husband’s willingness to give the get and the wife’s willingness to accept the get. If the couple both agree to the divorce, the get can be issued very quickly.

Problems arise, however, when one spouse refuses either to give or to accept the get. In such cases, the rabbinical court, recognizing the need for divorce, may compel whichever spouse is recalcitrant to give or accept the divorce (with a threat of a jail sentence). However, the court almost never utilizes this capability. While there have been rare instances where a woman held up a divorce by refusing to accept the get, the overwhelming majority of cases involve a husband who won’t give his wife a get. Even worse, there is a provision for the husband’s release (called heter mea rabbanim) if his wife refuses to accept the get, while there is no such provision for a woman.

Last January, Rachel again appeared in rabbinical court to plead for the recommendation of a divorce from her husband. Her lawyer, Sharon Shenhav, from the legal division of Na’Amat—Working Women and Volunteers, a women’s organization in Israel, was not present, because Rachel knew the rabbis felt Shenhav was pressuring her into a divorce that she didn’t really want. Both Shenhav and Rachel agreed that Rachel should try to convince them on her own that divorce was what she wanted.

“We entered the room. The rabbis asked my husband what he wanted. He said he wanted ‘shalom bayit.’ I said I wanted a divorce. My husband picked up one of the chairs in the room and threw it at me, breaking my nose and cheekbone.” Though the rabbinical court maintains that they called the police for her and brought her to the hospital, Rachel insists that after the attack she was told to go outside to the street to telephone the police. Either way, the police came and put Rachel’s husband in jail for six months. It was clear that reconciliation between the couple was impossible.

Yet the rabbinical court still would not use compulsory divorce measures. The court recommended divorce, but said that the couple should work out the actual agreement themselves. Luckily for Rachel, her husband was in jail for beating her and wanted to be released. Sharon Shenhav promised him a recommendation for a shortened sentence, plus a recommendation that his debt to National Insurance would be erased. (Under the family maintenance act of 1972, if a father does not provide maintenance for his children, the latter can collect from National Insurance, and N.I. itself will retrieve the money from the father.) For some reason, however, the rabbis felt that Rachel’s husband did not understand the divorce agreement; they wanted to wait another two weeks. Shenhav insisted that the divorce be signed at that moment, and the rabbis eventually agreed. After six years of waiting, Rachel was finally freed.

What is the problem?
Believe it or not, Rachel’s scenario is a good one. Between 8,000 and 10,000 women in Israel today are being denied a divorce, according to Leslie Sachs, spokeswoman for the Israel Women’s Network. The rabbinical court does not keep figures, but Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, general director of the rabbinical courts of Israel, estimates that there are only 1,000 women nationwide awaiting divorce.

These women remain “unreleased” because they don’t want to give up their children’s maintenance money, or their children, or their houses, or because their husbands just don’t want to let them go. In fact, Rachel would probably be considered lucky by the many women who have been waiting fourteen, sixteen, even eighteen years for their husbands to give them a get. These “agunot” (literally, “chained” women) are trapped. There are many who contend that this is not what Jewish law intended, and these people are beginning to work to remedy the situation.

Halakhically [according to Jewish law], forcing a husband to give his wife a get is no simple matter. Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan explains the concern that if compulsory get measures are used incorrectly, the get becomes invalid. From the founding of the State in 1948 until 1986 there were only fourteen cases in which the rabbinical court used compulsory get measures on a recalcitrant husband. Rabbi Ben-Dahan points out that in the past year alone, rabbinical courts used compulsory get measures on at least five recalcitrant hus- bands. Still, most women’s groups feel that this is not nearly enough.

While the problem of equitable divorce exists worldwide, it is most acutely felt in Israel, where there is no such thing as a civil divorce. All matters of “personal status”—such as marriage and divorce—are under the jurisdiction of religious courts, as in a classic theocracy. Muslims must abide by Islamic law. Christians by their law, and Jews—even non-religious Jews— by Jewish law. Whether or not they are observant, Jewish women need a get if they want to remarry in Israel. Also, halakhically, if a non-divorced woman has a child with another man, that child is considered a ”mamzer,” a stigma that remains forever. The Orthodox rabbinate will only marry a mamzer to another mamzer. Worse still, a man may have children with another woman, and even get permission from the Rabbinical court to take a second wife. In fact, between 1980-1985 the Rabbinical courts in Israel gave 95 men permission to take second wives.

“Most of these women care if their children are “mamzers,”‘ explains Sachs. “So, for a young woman with no children the crime is doubled—she can’t remarry or have children. It is a tool for blackmail and it works. These women give up everything—alimony, child support, their houses, their cars— just for the get. They end up condemned to a life of poverty.”

“It is an embarrassment that a woman today has literally to pay for her divorce,” says Daniella Valensi, head of Israel’s Organization to Help Agunot and Those Denied Divorce. Valensi was married for a year and a half when she asked her husband for a get. He refused her for twelve years, until the rabbinical court finally enforced compulsory get measures. “Why didn’t they do it ten years before? Twelve years of my life are gone. I can’t build a family, I can’t have more children, and everyday I see hundreds of women going through the same thing.” Valensi claims that in many cases it is the rabbinical judges who suggest to the husbands that they should be “asking for something” when they finally agree to succumb to the pressure to give the get.

“He is in a position to blackmail her, and if she doesn’t agree, he goes on with his life,” says Shenhav. “When a woman has to give up her rights to property or child support to get her get, I call that blackmail.”

As Shenhav points out, rabbis have been dealing with recalcitrant husbands for centuries. Shenhav blames the rabbinical courts today, saying that they have the power to control the problem but that they refuse to use it. She cites the law that if a husband and wife are separated for eighteen months, and he still refuses to grant her the get, the court can enforce a compulsory get.

“Five cases of compulsory get in the past year is just not enough. The problem is so much bigger than that. Why is it that in the haredi [ultra-orthodox] communities you don’t have this problem? It’s because in Mea Shearim [haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem] there’s a hit team and they are very organized. If a husband refuses to give his wife a get, they will pay him a visit on Saturday night after shabhat and ‘convince’ him to give the get, and he always does.”

In her ten years of practicing divorce law in Israel, Shenhav says she received one ruling of compulsory get. The case involved a man who was in jail for murder but refused to grant his wife a get. Because the man was already in jail, Shenhav succeeded in convincing the courts that he should be sent to solitary confinement as a measure of coercion. Right before he was to be sent, the man signed the get. The verdict received headlines because it was so rare.

Why are the rabbis doing so little?
Alice Shalvi, chair of the Israel Women’s Network, feels that part of the problem is that being a rabbinical judge is no longer considered a prestigious position in the yeshiva circles, so it is not necessarily the wisest or most learned men (always men) who end up as judges in the rabbinical courts. Also, many of them were brought up in environments where they had almost no contact with women, which makes it difficult for them to be sensitive to the plight of the women whose cases they see, and which makes women uncomfortable telling their stories to these men.

Moreover, a full workday for a rabbinical judge is nine to twelve-thirty, and many come in late or not at all. leaving very little time to deal with the large number of cases. Many lawyers complain that they must wait hour after hour for hearings which are endlessly postponed. Cases drag on, lawyers’ fees get higher and higher, and women get worn down and end up giving up and giving in.

Of course, there are some hardworking, learned, and sensitive rabbinical judges. Many women who go through the system cite examples of individual rabbis who try to talk to their husbands or who give them support.

Rachel Jahassi was married for less than a year when, at the age of 22, she filed for divorce. It took seven years for her husband to agree to give her a get, and that was only after she promised to pay him 30,000 Israeli shekels (about $12,000). During those years she completed a Master’s degree in Talmud, and wrote a thesis on compulsory get measures; today she is studying to be an arbitrator in the rabbinical courts. Rachel is certain that according to halakha, compulsory get measures could have been taken in her case, but that the rabbis weren’t taking her seriously. She is thrilled to be free—but at what price? She has no money left, and her twenties are gone forever. “It is clear,” she says, “that not enough is being done.”

Will changes in civil law help at all?
Many of those involved in the issue point hopefully to the new legislation being considered in the Knesset. Two years ago, twelve proposals suggested by different interest groups were presented to the Lobby to Help Women Being, Denied Divorce. The proposals involved sanctions put on a husband who will not give his wife a get, such as taking away his driver’s license, passport, and visa, limiting his use of checks and credit cards, and not allowing him to vote.

“Why do they need new legislation?” asks Shenhav. “Taking away their license? Come on. I’m dealing with drug addicts, unemployed men, alcoholics. They care if they can be elected to Knesset or not? Or if they can vote? Most of them don’t have cars, and they couldn’t care less if you took away their passports. There is only one thing that will affect them, and that is going to jail. This new law might help some people, but why, I ask, don’t they use what they’ve already got? They simply have to use their tools.”

Shenhav believes the only way this will happen is through civil pressure. “The rabbis are not being pressured enough. The only way that things will change is if the civil courts get into the picture. If we had a bill of rights that gave a woman the constitutional right to marry, then, if her husband refuses to give her a get, we can say that she is being denied her constitutional right to marry, and then she would be permitted to remarry. Then maybe if the rabbis knew she could remarry they might do something about it.”

Nevertheless, there are still thousands of women in Israel today who are waiting for their husbands to free them by signing a get. There is an urgency to this issue now. This is not something that happens to someone else, and it is not confined to any one sector of the population. Educated as well as uneducated women suffer. It can happen to a rich woman as well as a poor one. Every Jewish woman is vulnerable.

Says Sacks, “you start to have arguments, maybe your husband becomes disturbed, loses his balance. You want to get out of the marriage, but he won’t let you. And then, like all these women, you’re trapped. Only then can you really understand what a serious issue this is. None of these women thought it could happen to them.”

Naomi Grossman lives in Jerusalem and has written for The Jerusalem Post, Israel Scene, Publishers’ Weekly, the Jewish Agency, and the Global Press Service

The Year of the Agunah
by Naomi Grossman

The International Year of the Agunah opened internationally this past March with the formation of ICAR—the International Coalition for Agunah Rights—which includes women’s groups from Canada, England, the United States, and Israel. In Israel, the Year got underway with a demonstration outside Heichal Shlomo, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Chief Rabbinate, during the election of the new chief rabbis. This was immediately followed by a presentation of the issue at the Knesset, sponsored by the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, and media coverage of the plight of agunot has picked up considerably this past year. The Israel Women’s Network is working on new proposals for legislative change which were recommended to the Knesset in July. (These include the pending original proposal for sanctions on a recalcitrant husband.) Other efforts around the globe:

North America: New York State and Canada have passed legislation prohibiting civil divorce until the religious divorce has been signed. Canada’s National Council of Jewish Women has passed a resolution expressing total commitment to the Year of the Agunah. A committee has been established in New York to investigate the halakhic approach to the problem.
Australia: A National Council of Jewish Women has been established, as has a task force on the issue of agunot.
England: A Jewish Women’s Network has been launched, committing itself to working on the issue of agunot by publicizing the problem. The Network is also part of a commission examining women’s Jewry for the Committee on Women and Divorce, due to submit its report in September.
Europe: There was an initial response from some women’s groups in France, but unfortunately the rest of Europe has remained silent.

What to Do:
During Aseret Y’may T’shuvah, the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, watch for increased pressure from the International Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get. Serious measures, including a large poster campaign, will be aimed towards educating agunot about their options and rallying Jewish women behind the cause.

The next General Assembly of North American Federations to be held in Montreal, Canada in November 1993, should serve as an ideal location to discuss the crisis of the agunah. Montreal is where the steering committee of the International Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, the first organized effort to educate the public about Get and advocate protective civil legislation, is located.

Steps in the Right Direction
One model for interim measures which can be taken to ameliorate, if not to solve, the problem of agunot, comes from Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox congregation in New York, whose approach is being considered by other Orthodox synagogues as well. Last spring, the congregation passed a resolution to put public pressure on a man who refuses to give his wife a get even after a council of three Orthodox rabbis has decided that he is obligated to do so. The synagogue will impose the following sanctions on a recalcitrant husband:

1. He may not be a member of the synagogue.
2. He may not hold a position in any synagogue organization.
3. He may not be called to the Torah or given any liturgical honors.
4. His name will be announced at the conclusion of Shabbat services no less than once a month.
5. His name will be published in the synagogue bulletin with a request that members limit their social and economic relations with this man.

Perhaps this is a model for other synagogues and Jewish organizations to consider; however, the effectiveness of such sanctions (like the laws proposed in Israel to take away the passport or driver’s license of a man who withholds a get) is dependent upon the extent to which the husband is bound by the mores of the community. What if he doesn’t care? What if he says, “So I’ll stop going to shul. So, I’ll find new friends. So, sue me.”

More radical proposals to right the inequity of this male supremacist law were proposed at a World Union of Jewish Students seminar on feminism and Judaism held in Jerusalem last summer. Suggestions included: calling a hunger strike of all agunot; setting up a cage, in the public sphere, in which agunot would lock themselves to demonstrate their desparate situation; maintaining intense press coverage of the issue; and boycotting organizations which uphold the agunot principle while supporting those which use halakha to achieve a just solution to the problem.  

To lend your support on the Agunah issue, or to receive help if you yourself are being held hostage in a failed marriage, contact:
International Coalition for Aguna Rights (ICAR)
1175 York Avenue
New York, NY 10021

463 East 19 Street
Brooklyn, NY 11226

G.E.T. (Getting Equitable Treatment)
P.O.B. 300131
Brooklyn. NY 11230

1202 Avenue J
Brooklyn, NY 11230

Coaltion of Jewish Women for the GET
7 Irving Place
Dollard des Ormeaux
Quebec H9A 1Y4

Organization to Help Agunot and Those Denied Divorce
RO.B. 3095
Tel Aviv, Israel 61316

Israel Women’s Network
7 Gihon Street
Jerusalem. Israel 93547

To receive a copy of the May 1993 publication: Facts about Jewish Divorce, send a self-addressed stamped envelope with a letter of request to: B’nai Brith Women of Canada, 638A Sheppard Avenue West, Downsview, Ontario, M3H2S1.