Groundbreaking ruling in rabbinical court frees 23-year 'chained woman'

Annulment of Zvia Gordestski’s marriage could and should pave the way for private rabbinical courts for divorce, says Center for Women’s Justice.

Zvia Gordestski (left) holding the rabbinical court document freeing her from her marriage, alongside Center for Women’s Justice attorney Nitzan Caspi-Shiloni (photo credit: CENTER FOR WOMEN’S JUSTICE)
Zvia Gordestski (left) holding the rabbinical court document freeing her from her marriage, alongside Center for Women’s Justice attorney Nitzan Caspi-Shiloni
In a groundbreaking development for divorce rights in Israel, Tzviya Gorodetsky, who has sought a divorce from her husband for 23 years, has been freed from her marriage by a private, ad hoc Orthodox rabbinical court headed by respected Orthodox rabbi and talmudist Rabbi Daniel Sperber.
The ruling could pave the way for more such women to avail themselves of private rabbinical courts, if they believe that they have no chance of ever escaping their failed marriages. It follows other attempts to bypass established religious institutions in such realms as conversion, kashrut and marriage.
A similar ruling by another such ad hoc court was issued in 2013.
The Chief Rabbinate is certain to reject the validity of the divorce, but Gorodetsky could likely remarry in a private Orthodox ceremony if she so wished.
Gorodetsky, 54, was married to her husband for nine years and had four children with him before eventually requesting a divorce in 1995 due to his violent and abusive behavior towards her, which included beating her while she was pregnant so that she miscarried and throwing acid on her.
He steadfastly refused to grant a bill of divorce even after being ordered by the State Rabbinical Court to so. This led the court to eventually jail him; he has been sitting in prison for the last 18 years, unmoved in his determination never to grant his wife a divorce.
The court said, however, that there was nothing more they could do to obtain the divorce, arguing that Jewish law prohibits the annulment of a marriage by outside parties even in extreme circumstances.
Gorodetsky finally decided that she would never be free of the marriage without a new perspective from a different rabbinical court. So she got the Center of Women’s Justice, a women’s rights advocacy group, to convene the private rabbinical court headed by Sperber.
Sperber and the two other Orthodox rabbis, who have declined to be named, argued that there is a concept in Jewish law that the marital life which ensued following their marriage was objectively unlivable and not normative, and that no one would have agreed to such a marriage had they known that it would have ended up like this.
The rabbis also argued that the husband has a personality disorder which existed prior to the marriage but was not disclosed to her, rendering the marriage “a mistaken agreement” that was never valid in the first place.
Finally, the judges noted that Gorodetsky apparently paid for the wedding ring with her own money, meaning that the marriage had never been valid according to Jewish law.
“My soul is now tranquil,” Gorodetsky told The Jerusalem Post, saying that despite everything she felt no anger.
“It was difficult, but eventually I found people who helped me, did everything in accordance with Jewish law and gave me my freedom back.
“I am not angry with the Rabbinate, but they need to be more considerate of women, change their attitude and notice that other rabbis are more creative and brave. There is nothing in the ruling that is against Jewish law; it’s rare but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”
Gorodetsky said that although she would not be able to remarry through the Chief Rabbinate, she was nevertheless satisfied with the freedom she has obtained through the private rabbinical court.
She said that over the years friends had wanted to set her up with a new partner, but that she had refused.
“I can’t have children any more, and I am happy with the freedom I have received today. I am totally at peace with this.”
Center of Women’s Justice director Dr. Susan Weiss said that the ultimate solution for divorce refusal was for people “not to get married in a way that they can get stuck,” and said that the country should get away from a centralized religious bureaucracy.
“This is another example of people taking back their freedom and civil liberties. After so many years, Tzviya has received control over her life and her body once again, and we wish her a full and happy life,” said Weiss.
“Tzviya’s case proves that using sanctions against divorce refusers like imprisonment and shaming is not the right way to free [agunot] from their chained status.
“The conclusion is that there is a need to make use of mechanisms – within Jewish law and civil ones – that allow women’s freedom without the permission of the husband. Tzviya’s tragedy would not have happened if the state rabbinical court would recognize these mechanisms. And there is no escape from establishing private, religious rabbinical courts.”