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The notion that the phrase "documentary film" implies a balanced, or even accurate depiction is too often misguided. Take the recent Israeli agitprop film that vilifies rabbinical courts and Jewish religious law.
The documentary Mekudeshet - which means "betrothed," but whose English title is given as "Sentenced to Marriage" - has been awarded prizes by Israel's filmmaking community and, despite its mediocre artistry and blatant biases, has been hailed by remarkably uncritical critics across the United States where it has been screened.
Produced by Anat Zuria, whose previous work, tellingly, was an indictment of the Jewish "family purity" laws and the mikve, or Jewish ritual bath, Mekudeshet tells the stories of three women in the midst of divorce proceedings - presided over by government-sanctioned rabbinical courts.
The women's stories are harrowing; each, by her telling, is the victim of a heartless husband who refuses to acquiesce to the divorce. (According to Jewish religious law, to effect a divorce both husband and wife must agree to go their separate ways; under certain circumstances, a husband can be compelled to divorce his wife.)
Only one husband briefly appears; none of the men's advocates do. Only the women and their advocates are prominently featured. Instead, the sounds of ostensible court proceedings are heard while the camera remains in the hallway outside the offices where the sessions are ostensibly being conducted.
THE FILM seems to suggest that the choice snippets heard in the closed sessions are genuine and not a creative reenactment, although the claim is never explicitly made. The audio quality would seem to indicate a sound stage rather than a surreptitious tape recorder; and the judge's sonorous voice and occasionally malevolent tone also adds to the suspicion that the session proceedings, like other staged portions of the film, may have been "enhanced" for artistic - or political - reasons.
But even if every scene - including one subject's calm and endearing refusal to abandon her faith in God despite the pain she has suffered; a husband's advocate defending his client's indefensible absence from court; and several bouts of shrill histrionics - is bona fide, the message of the film is a lie.
THAT IS not to say there may not be cases where individuals (both women and men) are inadvertently ill-treated by the divorce system in Israel - a bureaucracy (and an Israeli one) after all - or even that the three women in the film did not experience what they claim. The lie is the film's accusation that the Israeli rabbinical establishment is corrupt and uncaring about women and that Jewish religious law inherently mistreats them.
Rabbi Yaakov Berman, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, is deeply involved in divorce issues around the Jewish world, including cases in Israel. He heads the Jewish Divorce Center, which facilitates divorce proceedings in failed marriages.
He cites a number of false implications fostered by Mekudeshet, among them: that either Jewish law or the State of Israel allows a married Jewish man to take up with another woman before the procurement of a valid divorce document; that only a man can impede a divorce process; and that Israeli rabbinical courts are lax regarding husbands' responsibility to provide child support.
MORE EGREGIOUS, though, than the slander against Israel's rabbinical courts is Zuria's indictment of Jewish law itself.
That agenda is transparent from the film's very opening, where the traditional breaking of the glass under the wedding canopy at a joyous celebration is punctuated by the sound of a prison cell door slamming shut; and by the words of a sacred Jewish text that then appear starkly on the screen.
Those words, from the Mishna, state the legal means by which a Jewish marriage can be effected. The translation provided reads: "A woman can be bought in three waysâ€¦" Translations are meant to make a text intelligible, but sometimes they obscure it.
The Hebrew word rendered as "bought" by Mekudeshet can indeed mean that, or, better, "acquired." But it need not connote possession in the sense of control, and certainly not in the sense of some right to mistreat (the Talmud exhorts a man to "love his wife like himself, and honor her more than himself" - Yevamot, 62b).
Consider that the very same word - in the very same form, gender and syntax - is used by another Mishna (Avot 6:6) to refer to how one "acquires" Torah.
One doesn't control Torah; one seeks a sublime relationship with it. One may not mistreat Torah; one must respect and cherish it. The analogy should be self-evident.
There are people, tragically, who do mistreat their wives (and others, their husbands). And there are people who abuse Torah, too, who seek, for instance, to portray it as something it is not - like a license to cause harm or pain.
Zuria's production is ostensibly about the former. What its viewers may not realize, though, is that it is an equally ugly example of the latter.
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