A CELEBRATORY GLASS OF WINE is poured before traditional blessings during an Orthodox wedding ceremony in Budapest, Hungary, in 2014..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, news and social media sources reported on a ruling of the Haifa rabbinic court according to which a wife must pay her husband hundreds of thousands of shekels in order to receive her get, a Jewish bill of divorce. When the wife refused to pay the required amount, the court ruled that she was actively “chaining herself” – causing herself to become an aguna – by preventing herself from receiving the divorce that he was willing to provide. The court then proceeded to free the husband from the mandatory incarceration of recalcitrant husbands and send him home –leaving his despairing wife imprisoned within the marriage.
The ruling took social media by storm; men and women were shocked by the unimaginable reality that was presented by the court and found it difficult to believe that this is the manner in which the Jewish world in the 21st century conducts itself. But as an organization which provides legal representation and support for agunot on a daily basis, my colleagues and I are mainly surprised that everyone is so surprised.
Indeed, this terrible story is only one among many tragic and horrific stories. That which in the eyes of the Jewish world seems absurd, unimaginable and inconceivable – even to the point where people doubted the very truth of the story – was, in our eyes, yet another horrific story emanating from the courtrooms of the rabbinic court system. The reality, ladies and gentlemen, exceeds all imagination.
I shall not tell you here today about a prominent rabbi who gave a husband the go-ahead to marry a second wife as a punishment to his first wife, to whom he refuses to give a get, simply because she turned to the civil courts with regard to legal matters, as permitted by law. And if we are already discussing civil courts, I shall also not tell you about a different rabbi who convinced a woman to transfer all legal jurisdiction with regard to finances and custodial matters from the civil court system to the rabbinical court, after making it clear to her that in the event that she refused to do so he would significantly prolong the duration of her case.
I will not expound upon the case of a man that freely and serially cheats on his wife, time and time again. Yet, when he appears before the rabbinical court, he raises his eyes heavenward and begs for court-mandated mediation to save his marriage; wherein, the rabbinic judges, in a moment of weakness, attempt to convince the woman to return home with him – because his request touches their hearts more than her request to end the nonexistent marriage does.
Imagine, if you will, a young woman who was married for a mere two weeks before she escaped from her husband, but was left captive for another two years while being refused a get for one reason or another. And once they finally reached an agreement, and he promised to grant her a get, pious doubt suddenly arose in the heart of a respected rabbinical judge – perhaps the agreement that they signed was flawed? So rather than finding a solution in accordance with Jewish law, this judge requested that the woman be sent home and remain chained in the marriage for an indefinite amount of time.
And if at this stage your mouths are agape in shock and your stomach is churning, what about the story of a man who perpetrated acts of sexual abuse in his own home, and was even convicted for such in a court of law, sentenced to time behind bars. Yet, when his wife demanded a divorce in light of this very crime, the rabbinical judges did not find “sufficient cause,” as the sexual abuse was related solely to his daughter, and had no effect upon “the holy relationship” between husband and wife.
These stories, which sound fictional to most ears, occur daily under the auspices of the rabbinical courts. There are many more cases similar to those mentioned above, and even many which exceed them in their horrific details. These stories are in no way positive, and they do not bestow honor upon an institution that is meant to serve as a halachic means of protection in the face of evil-doers and villains who disguise themselves as saints.
It is imperative to state that alongside the apathy and the decisions that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages, there are also rabbinical court rulings which are enlightened, moving and inspiring, where creative halachic solutions are accepted and rendered by rabbinic judges. Such judges truly understand their mission, and act with both courage of heart and courage of halacha (proverbially speaking) in order to free women who are held captive by their husbands.
In the words of the Passover Haggada, “they are all righteous, they are all wise, and they all know the words of the Torah.” What, then, is the difference between these two kinds of judges? Apparently, alongside the study of Jewish law, it is incumbent to teach rabbinic judges to review and internalize the reason for which they sit in judgment.
Several years ago, a request for a get from a woman whose husband was in an irreversible, persistent vegetative state reached a certain rabbinic judge in the north of Israel. The judge deliberated with regard to the case, brooded and pondered, and finally responded that he did not feel comfortable rendering a decision as he felt unable to endanger his status in Heaven by freeing her from her chained status. This woman then turned to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and requested his assistance. Yosef deliberated with regard to the case, brooded and pondered, and responded: “A judge that thinks about his place in Heaven rather than her place in this world should not be a rabbinic judge,” and promptly ruled to free the woman in question from her status in chains.
It is my hope that the judges – every single one of them – will consider “her place in this world” and remember that they were appointed to ensure such; that is their mission in this world. Until this happens, we will continue to rally on behalf of agunot and represent women who are refused a Jewish bill of divorce, to assist rabbinic court judges in recognizing injustice, to find sufficient causes for divorce, and to merit saying on those cases which are settled: “Blessed is He who redeems and saves captives.”
The author is the director of Yad L’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center for Agunot and Mesuravot Get, a division of Ohr Torah Stone.