Religious woman covering face behind bars.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There’s a well-known story about the footbridge next to the legendary city of
Chelm, whose many broken planks caused travelers to plummet into the troubled
waters below. The wise men of Chelm considered the situation carefully for seven
days and seven nights before coming up with an ingenious solution: We must build
a hospital under the bridge to care for those who fall.
There is also a
bridge between the laws that govern the rabbinical courts and the challenges
stemming from divorce in the modern age, a bridge that must be traversed by
every woman who desires a divorce – and every husband who refuses, for whatever
reason, to grant it. Like the one in Chelm, this bridge is rickety and
Agunot and mesuravot-get (women who are chained to their
marriages as a result of being denied a religious writ of divorce by
recalcitrant husbands) dangle on this unstable bridge, unable to go back, yet
prevented from reaching the other side.
They are suspended between the
shattered dream of a happy marital life and the get which will enable them to
embark upon the next phase of their life journey.
There are a number of
ways of approaching this problem and a number of excellent organizations
involved in seeking a solution.
There are those who shout from the
soapbox, urging women not to get married or, at the very least, not to get
married without the appropriate legal protection – highlighting the
disadvantages of women on the bridge, pointing an accusatory finger at the
rabbinate, constantly reminding everyone that the bridge needs
There are other organizations which try to build roads that will
detour around the bridge, attempting to arrive at the desired divorce on the
other side without having to cross the dilapidated bridge at all.
are committees and papers and conferences and panels and seminars analyzing in
detail how the bridge might be repaired, and who can be trusted to repair
Perhaps a second bridge should be built, to compete with the first.
And there are those who aren’t even interested in seeking an alternative means
of crossing, before declaring that the unsound, unbalanced bridge must be
immediately burned down.
But there are also those who devote their lives
to search and rescue, and those who work toward locating and rescuing the actual
travelers – in this case, the agunot and mesuravot get who are terrified and
stuck in mid-journey with no recourse, who need to be saved from a life in which
they must choose between remaining suspended in midair and hurtling headfirst
into the abyss.
In the past six months alone, women rabbinical court
advocates from the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center-Yad L’isha – have
rescued 49 mesuravot get and agunot from the bridge in the face of innumerable
obstructions and strong winds, steadfastly guiding them to safety on the other
side. Needless to say, each of these women represents an entire
BUT AT the same time, while our advocates are already on the
bridge rescuing a traveler, so to speak, we also make the effort to replace at
least one broken or missing plank. We represent our clients in the rabbinical
courts by extrapolating modern grounds for divorce from the ancient Jewish laws,
translating Halacha in ways which have bearing on modern-day scenarios, and
creating parallels between the realities of contemporary living and Jewish legal
As such, each time the rabbis accept our creative legal
interpretations enabling us to close a case – and free a trapped woman – we are
simultaneously strengthening the bridge, so the next woman will be able to take
surer steps and travel farther and farther.
The bridge is long and there
are many, many planks which are still in dire need of repair or replacement,
there is no question.
And yet, since Yad L’isha’s inception 16 years ago,
as the result of our close partnership with the rabbinical courts’ special unit
on agunot and other relevant parties, we are finally beginning to reap the
fruits of a long labor. The atmosphere in the rabbinical courts has changed:
Today, a judge who releases an aguna is considered to be a “good” judge. There
are many judges who are open to legal arguments bridging between past and
present, and who seek creative halachic solutions alongside our
The judges who have been appointed in the last two rounds are
beginning to find their voice; many are handing down rulings which are
compatible with modern society and adopt the progressive legal reasoning that
Yad L’isha’s advocates have been arguing for years. This has resulted in the
breaking of new ground with legal decisions which – while steeped in Halacha –
relate to contemporary matters. (For example, Halacha states that “he who throws
away his money on prostitutes” is grounds for divorce in Jewish law. We
successfully argued for an updated interpretation in which “he who throws away
his money on gambling or drugs” is considered parallel Jewish legal grounds for
obligating the divorce.) In the very near future, the committee to appoint new
rabbinical court justices will convene once again and a record number of judges
will be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Due to our lobbying –
together with several other organizations devoted to the plight of chained women
–the law has been changed so that, from now on, four of 11 members on the
committee are mandated for women – including one rabbinical court
We hope that the newly appointed judges will be capable
bridge-builders. We at Yad L’isha will persist in our daily search and rescue
work while continuing to toil toward the bridge’s ultimate repair, plank by
plank. The writer is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as
director of the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline- Yad L’isha,
part of the Ohr Torah Stone network. Learn more via Yad L’isha’s hotline,
1-800-200-380; or www.yadlaisha.org.il