The film Mekudeshet, an award-winning documentary shown twice in the Knesset, twice at the Begin Center, and innumerable times in theaters throughout Israel and the United States, contains a difficult message which the Orthodox establishment must take very seriously.
On the one hand, one can argue that the film displays an unfair bias against rabbinical courts in general and even against the entire corpus of Jewish marital law - and therefore, on that basis, any self-respecting religious person must dismiss it out of hand.
Indeed, the film is one-sided: It neglects to mention the significant changes that have taken place in the Israeli religious court system. For instance, recalcitrant husbands have had their professional (or driving) licenses confiscated; some have been imprisoned, at times in solitary confinement, for refusing to give a get - the state-mandated religious divorce - when ordered to do so by the court.
And it gives no credit to the sincere and indefatigable efforts by Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan as administrator of the religious courts, as well as to the empathy and ingenuity shown by judges such as Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Shlomo Daichovsky in relieving the plight of women in intolerable marital situations.
Moreover, the film neglects to portray the Mishnaic concept of marriage as an act of sanctification (Mishna Kidushin 2:1), depicting marriage only as an act of kinyan (Mishna Kidushin 1:1), and choosing to translate kinyan as a purchase rather than as an assumption of obligation (and mutual obligations), which I believe is the true meaning of kinyan in the context of marriage and the truest interpretation in light of rabbinic commentators.
HOWEVER, THE failure to give credit where credit is due does not justify the conclusion that "the message of the film is a lie," as expressed in an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesperson for Agudath Israel ("I don't buy 'Mekudeshet,'" Jerusalem Post, April 18). Nor does it justify the acceptance of an intolerable situation for which there are solutions built into talmudic law and religio-legal precedent, but still awaiting application.
I neither supported, directed, produced nor scripted Mekudeshet. Had I done so it would have been a very different film, equally emphasizing the possible solutions which our far-reaching halachic tradition provides (see my A Jewish Woman's Right to Divorce).
Nevertheless, the woman's advocate in the film is an outstanding graduate of our Monica Dennis Goldberg School for Women Advocates, and I can personally attest to the veracity of the three tragic cases which the film depicts.
Indeed, I invite any skeptical religious leader to visit our offices, look into the files and decide for himself. Even more to the point, Rabbi Shafran cites a number of "false implications fostered by Mekudeshet," such as "that Jewish law of 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 the Israeli rabbinical courts are lax regarding husbands' responsibility to provide child support."
The facts are that there are numerous instances in which men have taken up with other women and Israeli courts have still not demanded that they give their wives a get (one of the cases in the film).
Since it is the man who must give the get to the woman, it is he who is the one empowered to grant or prevent his wife's freedom, so that on the biblical level she is very much at his mercy. And the Israeli courts will often waive child support payments and even suggest that the wife pay the undeserving husband large sums of money in order for her to procure her freedom.
THE TALMUD provides the religious courts with the power to coerce the husband into giving his wife a get (Ketubot 83a - 84b with commentaries ad loc), and that such a writ of divorce is considered to have been given by his own volition because he too understands, in his higher and truer nature, that it is the right thing to do (Maimonides, Laws of Divorce 2, 20).
And once a get is ordered by the court, a recalcitrant husband in Israel can suffer the loss of his various licenses as well as of his freedom.
The tragic situation today is that many rabbinic judges would rather a wife gave in to the husband's unfair and even cruel blackmail rather than coerce him to give her a get.
Two cases our legal aid advocates of Yad LaIsha are dealing with even as I write these lines:
â€¢ A haredi husband who has been imprisoned for abusing his five young sons refuses to grant his wife a get unless she accepts a mere NIS 1,000 a month for child support - and the three judges are urging the woman to acquiesce to her husband's demand in exchange for a freely given get.
â€¢ A secular husband who abused his daughter from the time she was three, and served four years in prison as a result, refuses to give his wife a get unless she waives child support, waives the NIS 500,000 payment the court awarded to the daughter for her suffering, and waives her rights to their jointly owned apartment.
The court initially urged the wife to acquiesce, and the case is being appealed.
THE SOLUTIONS to these problems are all to be found in the Talmud, whose avowed policy was "every leniency must be evoked in order to free a woman from a difficult marriage" and therefore ruled that the judges may coerce the husband and even beat him into giving the get.
The Talmud in extreme cases even evokes the possibility of annulling the marriage if no other solution can be found. Back in the 11th century, it was Maimonides who ruled that "women dare not be held as captive women by their husbands."
Jewish law has the solutions, but some rabbinical judges are loath to implement them. As it says in the great talmudic super-commentary Rav Shlomo Eidels (the Maharsha) wrote at the end of the Tractate Yevamot: "May God grant strength and courage to our religious leadership so that God can then grant this nation (of women as well as men) true peace."
The writer is rabbi of Efrat.