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Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

Trapped by Tradition


The Modern-Day Israeli Agunah

By Shimrit Hait

I

n the middle ages, in communities in Europe, Jews had their own political sovereignty and judicial autonomy. Therefore, if a Jewish woman desired a divorce and a Jewish court of law decided she deserved one, the Jewish court was powerful enough to order the husband to give his wife a get (bill of divorce, pl. gitin).[1] Furthermore, given the relative difficulty of travel, few could escape rabbinic decisions by running to other countries. As long as Jewish courts were able to legally enforce their decisions, the agunah problem was solved.a

In contrast, the agunah problem today pervades the Diaspora where, because of the separation of church and state, Jewish courts of law no longer have the legal power to implement their decisions. Even when Jewish courts of law declare that husbands must grant a get, nothing can legally force husbands to do so. However, the positive side of separation of church and state is that because all Jews can obtain a civil divorce, only those Jews who desire a traditional Jewish divorce are bound by this system.

Although there exist thousands of mesuravot get (literally, those from whom bills of divorce are being withheld) in the Diaspora, the problem is of particular significance in Israel, where with regard to areas such as marriage and divorce there is no separation of church and state. Under the Law of the Rabbinic Courts (1953), the divorce of a Jewish couple in Israel is under the sole jurisdiction of the rabbinic courts; thus, marriage and divorce in Israel are run according to halacha (Jewish law), which gives the power of granting a get to the husband.[2] When a husband refuses to grant his wife a get, a wife becomes chained to her husband as he abuses his halachic power.b

Given Israel's ability to legally implement the decisions of rabbinic courts, one would think that mesuravot get in Israel would be virtually nonexistent. Instead, corruption and an inability to address this problem pervade the Israeli rabbinic courts and society. Rabbinic judges rarely find sufficient reason to compel recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives gitin. In a meeting convened in June 1998 with the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR), the Israeli Chief Rabbis admitted that no special consideration was given to families who had been exposed to family violence. Instead of declaring spousal or child abuse as grounds for divorce, rabbinic judges call repeatedly for women to make "shalom bayit" (peace in the house) with their abusive partners—even though there is no legal, ethical, or halachic support for such steps. Israel is the only Western country in which domestic violence is not recognized as a valid reason to let a woman unilaterally divorce her husband. Furthermore, because of this lack of separation of church and state, all Jews are bound by the traditional religious system of marriage and divorce. Thus, unlike the Diaspora, in Israel mesuravot get range from ultra-Orthodox to completely unaffiliated.c

Because rabbinic courts in Israel have legal backing, there are various ways to compel recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives gitin. Israeli law gives the beit din (Jewish court of law) the authority to place restrictions on the husband from the moment they rule for the obligation or compulsion of a get. The "sanctions law" enables the beit din to legally place various types of pressure on the husband in order to persuade him to give his wife a get: for example, cancellation of his driver's license and credit card, and even imprisonment.d Despite the fact that these are a legal means of ensuring ethical results, rabbinic judges rarely use these methods. It takes an average of four to seven years to convince the rabbinic courts to impose basic sanctions on the recalcitrant husband. In fact, documents published by the rabbinic court show that over one thousand women have not yet received their gitin, despite the fact that the beit din ruled that the husband must give a get.e

Mesuravot get in Israel face extreme difficulty. Because of their inability to obtain a halachic, and thus legal, divorce, they are unable to remarry. If a mesurevet get decides to have children with another man, these children are considered mamzerim[3] and are looked upon as outcasts in Israeli society. Trapped and alone, many mesuravot get face grave danger. According to studies done by Mavoi Satum—an Israeli organization that provides legal aid and emotional support for agunot, and advocates for changes to prevent the problem from afflicting women in the future—most mesuravot get have been physically, verbally, mentally, financially, and sexually abused by their husbands. These studies suggest that the prototype of an abusive husband matches that of a husband who refuses to give his wife a get. Even those women who were not abused during their marriages may be exposed to an abusive process in their attempt to gain freedom from their recalcitrant husbands.f

In addition to the many psychological problems mesuravot get endure throughout this difficult process, many mesuravot get face serious financial difficulty. According to research carried out by the National Insurance Institute, the level of maintenance to be paid by the husband ordered by the rabbinic courts is usually lower than that set by the Family Court. For women who find themselves trapped in this process, the State of Israel offers no help. The concept of agunah does not exist in the government bureaucracy, which leaves an agunah without any housing or childcare assistance.g

Resolving monetary issues in the family courts often produces no better solutions. The law of financial arrangements between married couples stipulates that no agreements reached in the family courts can be implemented until the giving of the get. This fact allows the husband to use the get as a bargaining chip, and to delay the get in order to blackmail his wife into concessions on child custody, child support, and division of assets. Many women are forced to concede on such issues, while the rabbinic courts become silent partners in the blackmail process.h For example, some husbands and rabbinic judges request that women send their children to ultra-Orthodox schools against their wishes, in exchange for a
get.i

I have seen this dark area of Israeli society first-hand. In the summer of 2005, I worked for Mavoi Satum. During this time, I spoke to women who had been married to abusive husbands for as many as ten years. Both religious and non-religious mesuravot get who endure the abusive beit din proceedings year after year are disgusted with this "religious process" that condones the abuse of their husbands. People do not understand how a Jewish system can allow rabbinic judges to let husbands take advantage of their wives.

One day this past summer, I ventured to see the beit din experience for myself. A woman who had been working with Mavoi Satum for five years would finally be getting her get, and we would be there with drinks to celebrate. Only this time, like before, she did not receive her get. Her husband refused to show up to court, and the beit din refused to compel him to do so. The rabbinic judges asserted that she could not receive her get if her husband was not there to grant her one. This experience allowed me to see first-hand the lack of respect for women that exists in the rabbinic courts. Walking through the halls of the rabbinic court of Jerusalem, I noticed that the rabbis all around me tried not to look at me and the other women. This kind of behavior sends a message that women do not deserve to be treated with the same respect as men. How can a group of judges be expected to judge fairly, if husband and wife do not stand on equal footing? They can't. Rabbinic judges in Israel are ultra-Orthodox rabbis who maintain a centuries-old and anachronistic view of women. In this regard, they do not see any reason to qualify abuse as grounds for divorce, because they do not believe women can be witnesses to their own abuse, as they believe women are incapable of serving as witnesses. Rabbinic judges will continue to have this power over women, completely unchecked, so long as the government of Israel allows it to do so. Unfortunately, Israel's governmental system gives small extremist parties, such as the ultra-Orthodox party Shas (which maintains control of the rabbinic courts), much political clout.

It is important to realize that combating this problem in Israel is possible. Throughout the centuries, different rabbis have proposed different solutions that have been suitable to the specific time periods in which they lived. Today, there are many viable solutions that should be instituted in addition to the aforementioned legal sanctions. First, it is possible to impose communal sanctions, both social and financial, on the recalcitrant party. For example, rabbis can announce the recalcitrant party's name every Sabbath in synagogue, publish the name in local Jewish papers, and call upon the community to avoid social and economic relations with such persons. Also, community members can picket the recalcitrant party's home and business.j

Perhaps the single most important preventative solution is that of the prenuptial agreement. First drafted in the early 1980s by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, today most couples getting married use the prenuptial agreement, which stipulates that for every day the husband and wife are separated, even prior to divorce, the wife can demand of her husband a previously specified sum of money. The husband and wife agree prenuptially to appear before a specified beit din that will arbitrate the get. If the wife refuses to appear before the court, or abide by the court's decision, the husband's financial obligation is terminated. This prenuptial agreement is of great value because of its legal backing. It has been approved by the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, who serves on the beit din of Jerusalem.k

Centuries ago, the ketubah (marriage contract) was created to protect the woman in marriage. To ensure that husbands would not divorce their wives too quickly, the ketubah stipulates that a husband must give his wife a certain amount of financial support should he decide to divorce her. To be clear, we use the ketubah today because of tradition, not because it is legally effective—it certainly is not. Furthermore, the ketubah was not designed to help in situations in which the wife, not the husband, wants a divorce. Thus, the prenuptial agreement is needed to protect women today, just as the ketubah traditionally protected women. Rabbis should feel a responsibility when marrying Jewish couples to require them to sign this agreement.

Lastly, of course, one cannot help but wonder if Israel's policy of church-state "nonseparation" when it comes to marriage and divorce is ideal, or even ethical. Traditionalists would argue that Jewish law should mandate marriage and divorce because it is these life processes, done in accordance with Jewish law, that ensure the continuity of a distinctly Jewish People. Others would argue that one should not be forced to abide by a traditional religious system one does not accept, just because one is a Jewish Israeli citizen. In any case, it is important that through advocacy and education we put a stop to the agunah problem. As a community that embodies truth, justice, and morality, we have a responsibility to be steadfast in out determination to solve it. Now that we have our own Jewish State and can do things our way, we have a responsibility to do things the right way. Let us truly be a light unto the nations, by doing what is moral, ethical, and just.



[1] Jewish law dictates that a husband must give a get out of his own free will. A get given against the husband's wishes, under external compulsion, is referred to as a get me'useh' (a forced get) and is considered invalid. However, under certain circumstances, rabbinic courts can rule that a husband must give a get. This is refereed to as chiyuv, or k'fiya get, and does not produce a get me'useh'. As soon as a judge declares that a husband is obligated to give a get, it is possible to compel him to do so, and there is no risk of get me'useh'.

 

[2] According to the Torah, it is a man who initiates a marriage, and he divorces at his own will: "A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house." (Deuteronomy 24:1)

 

[3] Mamzerim (sing. mamzer) are offspring of an incestuous or adulterous relationship.


Works Cited

Mavoi Satum. Facts About Agunot and Mesuravot Get. Jerusalem, Israel: 2000.

Mavoi Satum. Halachic Developments. Jerusalem, Israel: 2000.

Mekudeshet. Dir. Anat Zuriah. 2004.

Weiss, Rabbi Avraham. "The Modern Day Agunah: In Retrospect and Prospect." The Orthodox Caucus. 14 Feb. 2006. <http://www.orthodoxcaucus.org/prenup/weiss.htm>. Accessed 9 Mar. 2006.


 

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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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