Is it men?

So long as the issue of divorce in Israel is controlled by the Orthodox religious establishment, the problem is the men.

March 10, 2013 21:08
4 minute read.
Jewish wedding in Havana

Jewish wedding in Havana 370. (photo credit: Courtesy JDC)

Several years ago I was interviewed by a BBC reporter regarding the issue of agunot, women trapped in an unwanted or non-existent Jewish marriage.

The reporter, who was from London and a Roman Catholic, asked me to give him some background information on Jewish law and the power of a husband to withhold a get so that he could ask intelligent questions during the taping of the interview.

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When I described the history of Jewish marriage and divorce, including the current situation in the Batei Din, or religious courts, he asked me how such a terrible situation could occur in the 21st century to intelligent, educated Jewish women. “Is it men?” he asked. I laughed, considered the question for a moment and then responded: “Yes, I think it’s men!” I thought of this conversation as I read about the incredible farce that took place recently in Jerusalem when Shai Cohen, a prisoner, escaped from the bathroom window of the Beit Din Hagadol, or Supreme Rabbinical Court.

According to media reports, Cohen (who wears a kippah), a 40-year-old man from Holon, has been in prison for six years for get (Jewish writ of divorce) refusal. He and his wife lived together for two years before separating 12 years ago.

Despite her request for a divorce, Cohen has been recalcitrant and was therefore sent to prison by the Beit Din over five years ago.

Apparently, Cohen had begun to discuss the possibility of giving his wife a get recently and there have been several hearings in the Beit Din Hagadol before a bench headed by Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger. At yesterday’s hearing, Cohen indicated he was prepared to give the get and release his wife from their nonexistent marriage if visiting arrangements could be made with their two children at the prison. The two sides’ lawyers were to work together to draft an agreement. After the hearing, Cohen asked to go to the bathroom.

The two prison guards accompanying him agreed to his request and waited outside for him to do his business. When Cohen locked the bathroom door, the guard demanded that Cohen unlock it. Nothing happened, and by the time the guard broke open the door, Cohen had escaped by jumping out of the bathroom window.

The police began a search for Cohen, including the use of a helicopter. When asked why Cohen had not been shackled, the response was that at a hearing in June, 2012, a judge had ordered that the prisoner should not be handcuffed or have shackles on his legs when brought from the prison to court hearings.

THIS ABSURD story is indicative of the plight of Jewish women who seek a divorce from abusive husbands. As an attorney who has represented hundreds of women in the Israeli rabbinical courts for over three decades, I can relate many horror stories of cases of get refusal. Jewish women today continue to be held in marital captivity for decades by a system which permits vindictive, greedy men to control the lives of their wives by refusing to free them to remarry.

The whole system of religious divorce in Israel, beginning with the husband, the rabbis in the courts, the chief rabbis, the interpretation of Halacha, or Jewish law, and including the police and the prison guards is made up of men. Our political system continues to be dominated by men and the possibility of introducing civil marriage and divorce is unlikely.

Don’t get me wrong – I like men! Married for over 53 years to a caring, sensitive man who happens to be a staunch feminist, I have been fortunate to know that there are some very good men in this world. I also had a wonderful, loving father and have a son and son-in-law who are supportive of their wives’ careers as well as being loving husbands and fathers. My four grandsons are pretty terrific, too.

But when it comes to the issue of Jewish divorce and the suffering of women who are unable to be released from non-existent or unwanted marriages, I must admit that the BBC reporter may have been right. So long as the issue of divorce in Israel is controlled by the Orthodox religious establishment which is made up of men only, the problem is the men. Somehow they don’t seem to be able to solve the problem of agunot, and yesterday’s farce at the Beit Din in Jerusalem proves they are unable or unwilling to do so.

The author, an Israeli lawyer, is the director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council of Jewish Women. She served as the only woman on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2002 to 2009 as a representative of the Israel Bar Association.

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