Earlier this week, Kan – the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation aired a segment called “Trapped Men,” which exposed the issue of men being denied a get (a religious divorce).
The report showed that female recalcitrance is a widespread yet silenced phenomenon, because women’s organizations are greedy and need to continue making enormous financial and political capital from the plight of agunot (“chained” women whose husbands will not grant them a get). Ultimately, this was an attempt, under the guise of an investigative report, to misrepresent the issue of aginut (being chained to marriage) as a war between the sexes. That, however, is not the truth; the truth is that it’s a war between absolute villains and their victims, whom they have trapped in bonds of matrimony.
Divorce recalcitrance is despicable and it must be fought, and it makes no difference whether the recalcitrant side is the man or the woman – both are contemptible, and both make use of the authority they’ve been given in a way that goes against both the spirit of Jewish law and the spirit of common morality, which champions the dignity and freedom of every human being.
The solutions we have been working on and advancing, which aim to mitigate the problem – arrangements like prenuptial agreements and the annulment of kiddushin (marriage vows) – cross gender lines. They protect both men and women from assuming the status of aginut.
We feel the pain that anyone denied a get has endured, and we demand that the religious courts take action to prevent it from recurring. However, it’s crucially important for everyone to understand that although men and women who refuse to give their spouse a get are equally contemptible, their victims’ situations are simply incomparable.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of people about aginut. One of the participants, a young woman of about 20, raised her hand and asked to make a comment.
“Excuse me,” she said. “You keep talking about female agunot and women who have been refused a get, but there are men in that situation, too. In fact, my father has been denied a get for 30 years!”
I couldn’t understand how 20-year-old woman could have a mother who has refused her husband a get for 30 years. I asked her, “You’re saying that your mother has refused to receive a get from your father for 30 years?”
“No,” came the brief response. “She isn’t my mother, she’s the woman my father is married to. My father has been living with another woman, and I’m their daughter.”
“OK, then,” I answered, “I’m happy your father could move on, begin a relationship and have children. Your story is an excellent illustration of the difference between women who have been refused a get and men in that situation.”
That’s the whole story, in a nutshell.
A man who has been denied a get can receive permission to remarry, with or without the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate. And even if he does not receive permission or remarry, he can still live with another woman and father children who will be considered legitimate, untainted by the specter of mamzerut [the status of a child born of a relationship forbidden by the Bible].
I don’t think this is a simple solution, and it would be far better if we didn’t need it, but this substantial difference completely shifts the balance of power between the sexes. Two of the men who appeared in the televised story are in relationships, even though they were denied a get. If, however, a woman were to form a relationship in a similar way, she’d be considered an adulteress, and any children resulting from the union be forever considered mamzerim – illegitimate.
This is the same reason why blackmailing women seeking a divorce is so much easier and far more effective: in their case, there is so much more at stake. The implications for women are inconceivably far-reaching.
The difference in implementation of sanctions against get-refusers also stems from this fundamental difference. The religious courts rarely impose sanctions on recalcitrant women because, both practically and halachically, it’s simply easier to allow a man to remarry and continue living his life than to put a woman behind bars and wait until she recants and agrees to accept the get.
Divorce recalcitrance is nothing short of pure evil and extortion. When we petition the religious court to resolve the issue, we must also appeal to the general population and beseech others to adopt a stern position and condemn anyone who refuses to grant a get – regardless of gender.
The High Court of Justice has already authorized the imposition of medieval-era community censure (herem) on divorce recalcitrants, and has supported the religious courts by calling on the general public to distance themselves from such refusers, to avoid doing business with them and praying with them, and not to honor them in any way until they release their wives from their bonds – or, in the reverse case, their husbands. We implore you, men and women alike, to do the same; be very harsh toward those living among us who are denying their ex-spouse a get.
Be prudent, protect yourselves, and do not get married without a prenuptial agreement. Most cases of recalcitrance can be avoided through these types of “insurance policies.”
We urge all involved to find comprehensive solutions to the problem of aginut. Nonetheless, we will continue doing whatever is necessary to release chained women because, unlike their male counterparts, very little can be done to release them within in the framework of Jewish law. Their situation is far more complicated and dire, and from a halachic perspective, the consequences for women are disastrous.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.
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