A woman has been separated from her husband for four years. She doesn’t love him anymore, doesn’t get along with him and wants a divorce. And the husband? He refuses to give her a get – a Jewish divorce document.
She’s been trying to divorce him for five years. For five years she’s been coming to the rabbinic courthouse again and again, but she has yet to receive a get.
This is the plot of the film Get
, which recently received the Ophir Award. It is also the life story of many women who frequent the hallways of the rabbinical courts throughout Israel.
As a rabbinical court advocate and as the leader of an organization that helps agunot – women whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to give them a get – I encounter such stories on a regular basis. A woman waits and waits for a decision to be handed down that will coerce her husband to grant her a writ of divorce, but then strangely enough the language of the court decision reads, “The two parties must carry out a negotiation in order to reach a divorce agreement.”
In the movie, Vivian Amsalem is just one of these women, and when the court requests that her husband grant her a divorce, he quietly and poignantly asks the big question: “On what grounds?” Even in modern-day Israel of 2014, a man is required to grant his wife a divorce only if there is just cause, since according to Jewish law, without just cause both the wife and husband both need to be in agreement in order to divorce. In most countries there is a situation known as a “no-fault divorce,” in which the dissolution of a marriage does not require a showing of wrongdoing by either party. Many people know such divorces do not exist in Israel, but it’s important to remember that in the past the plight of Jewish women was even worse.
In ancient times, a man could divorce his wife without cause.
During the Talmudic period, our sages instituted the ketuba – a Jewish marriage license – which was considered a revolutionary feminist achievement at the time since it determined that if a man wanted to divorce his wife he must pay her.
This was supposed to make men think twice before divorcing their wives.
About 1,000 years later, Rabbeinu Gershom amended the ruling, writing that a man could not divorce his wife against her will and that a man could not have two wives. However, despite the great progress that has been made, the ruling remains that the husband is the only one who can initiate a divorce, and in order for a court to force a man to do so, there must be just cause.
And thus, in many of the cases we represent, we find ourselves in a most absurd situation in which the court deems that there are not sufficient grounds for divorce and so asks the husband, “What do you want in exchange for granting a divorce?” In this way, it is the court itself which encourages blackmail, using the excuse that this is only necessary because no just cause exists. And yet, because the husband needs to give his consent, the wife is required by the court to accede to his whims in exchange for a get.
Vivian Amsalem’s story as portrayed in the movie Get
presents the problem in the most clear-cut, natural way. The husband demands nothing of his wife. He doesn’t demand to pay less child support; he doesn’t ask for her to divide up their property unfairly; nor does he ask for custody of their young children. Other than their struggle surrounding the get, the couple has no disputes. And so, Vivian’s story exposes the raw nerve of the problem, the heart of the tragedy: a husband refusing to grant his wife a get just because he can. The reason he refuses is because he feels that she is his property. She is his. He loves her and feels no need to let her move on with her life.
In the film, this feeling intensifies during the ceremony when the husband finally grants Vivian the get. He has a hard time saying the required words: “You are now allowed and permitted to marry any man you wish.” He feels like Vivian is his property and the idea that she could be with someone else is unacceptable to him.Get
is a quiet film, and yet it is poignant and powerful nonetheless.
The husband is a good man, goes to pray every day in the synagogue, is well-liked and non-violent (even Vivian’s brother attests to this). But even when she goes back to live with him as the court has ordered her, he ignores her and does not come near her physically or emotionally. They live as two strangers in the same home and she remains in solitude. While this is not violence, it is certainly abuse.
The film shows that despite the strict rule requiring the existence of just cause, there are ways to help women who find themselves in this difficult situation. For example, the film demonstrates that despite the lack of grounds for divorce, it was possible to find reasons upon which the court could rely to force the husband to give Vivian a get.
For one, Vivian and her husband had not been intimate for many years, making her husband technically “rebellious.” Even if a husband claims it is his wife who is not interested in marital relations, this is still considered just grounds, since two people who aren’t interested in having an intimate relationship are considered mutually rebellious, which according to Rabbeinu Yeruham requires the couple to divorce.
In my opinion, the fact that Vivian was represented by a male advocate had an extremely large impact on the results. Had a female to’enet rabbanit (rabbinical court advocate) been representing her, she would have been asked the right questions and as a result she would have succeeded in verbalizing what made her feel disgust for her husband.
Unfortunately, it took her many long years to bring up these issues.
Regarding the laws of matrimony, the Rambam says that if a woman claims she can’t stand her husband and does not want to live with him anymore, he must be forced to grant her a divorce immediately. It is our job as rabbinical court advocates to find just grounds and to present them to the court. This is extremely hard work because the court always prefers when both husband and wife are in agreement about the divorce, even if there is just cause or if the husband has demands and the court pressures his wife to agree to them.Get
is a sensitive, authentic portrayal of an extremely emotional and painful situation. It was created in such a way as to says to the viewer: this can happen to any of us – you, your daughter, the neighbor down the street or even your hairdresser.
It is the story of thousands of women. It also reveals what we, rabbinical court advocates, come up against every day.
The author is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as director of Yad L’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network.