Situation for agunot, women locked in marriage is ‘cruel and abusive,’ declares Blu Greenberg

Orthodox feminist leader discusses recalcitrant husbands and how to free their wives

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
According to Blu Greenberg, a visionary leader of Jewish Orthodox Feminism and co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.”
At the forefront of her struggle today, which is gaining wide-spread rabbinic support, is to solve the issue of women with recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant their wives a “get” – a Jewish divorce document.
A study done by Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University’s Law Faculty, found that one out of every three women in rabbinic courts in Israel suffers from get abuse, when the husband threatens to withhold the get, cited Greenberg, who sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss Orthodox feminism.
The problem, she said, stems largely from the attitude of the 10th-century halachic authority, Rabbeinu Tam. His hard-line approach is what paved the way for stringent rulings to this day, according to Greenberg. At the time, the principle of a husband’s absolute right over his wife was deemed inviolable and many rabbis over the years, and still today, understood that being faithful to halacha – as it is interpreted in their eyes – was more important than any given woman’s particular situation.
This attitude of being stringent in the cases of agunot, Jewish women who are “chained” to their marriage, is something she calls “horrific.”
“This is a situation of cruelty, a situation of abuse, a situation of total injustice to this poor woman and we have to find a way to release her,” she said. “Why that isn’t the mentality is baffling to me.”
Greenberg is not alone in her struggle, and some very well respected Orthodox rabbis have come forward to try and eliminate the problem of igun (“desertion”). One of her goals is “shifting the paradigm from helping agunot to zero tolerance for the threat of igun by recalcitrant husbands, the abusers of halacha.”
Rabbi Simcha Krauss, Rabbi Yosef Blau and Rabbi Yehuda Warburg have been operating the International Beit Din, a rabbinical court dealing with cases of recalcitrant husbands worldwide. The court has been operational for only a few months and has already resolved some 20 cases.
The International Beit Din utilizes two halachic tools to resolve cases. The first is by declaring the witnesses from the wedding not kosher. The second option is declaring that there was a preexisting flaw in the husband that was not disclosed to the woman prior to the wedding, and therefore the marriage was a mistake.
Both of these tools are halachically acceptable and used by other rabbinic courts around the world, but this court is interpreting cases with wider latitude, making it their mission to find the flaws that can provide the halachic loopholes to apply them.
Other courts err on the side of caution, according to Greenberg, and women are hurt in the process.
Whether or not the “release documents” from marriage received by these women will hold up in other rabbinical courts when the women come to get married again, for example, is one of the questions the court is dealing with now.
“The difference will be community pressure,” she stated, indicating that communities have an obligation to push their leaders into recognizing the International Beit Din and their rulings. She noted that many tabbis and community leaders already support the new court.
Greenberg hopes that the Interior Ministry will accept these divorces and subsequent marriages, which will help legitimize and normalize the use of the International Beit Din.
While the court cannot set up inside of Israel, due to the monopoly held over rabbinical courts, she said that “halacha is international, halacha is universal” and pointed out that Israeli women can approach the International Beit Din for assistance.
While halachic prenuptial agreements are becoming more common in Orthodox communities, Greenberg said that it isn’t enough.
To be effective, they need to be a mandatory part of every wedding ceremony and even then, she said, “it wouldn’t be a systemic solution for another 50 or 60 years,” referring to the numerous marriages that exist today without it.
When asked if she thought women would ever be accepted as judges in the Orthodox world, Greenberg said that it’s not impossible, but her agenda is not changing the courts in that way, rather ensuring that no woman has to wait one, five, sometimes even 20 years to obtain a get.
She was visiting Israel as a guest speaker at the “bat mitzva” celebration for the Rackman Center. The center is at the forefront of the battle to improve women’s rights in the field of family law. Over the years, it has initiated and led a series of precedent-changing law proposals and petitions that have changed the situation for women in Israel. The center runs a legal clinic specializing in family law and has voluntarily helped thousands of women.
“The Rackman Center has improved the status of women in the most sensitive field,” said Halperin-Kaddari. “Laws such as raising the marriage age to 18 have created new behavioral norms. Others, such as amending the law to require rabbinical courts to write protocols and amending the alimony law to assist women in collecting child support payments from the National Insurance Institute, have strengthened both transparency and equality.”
“The legal clinic has led a number of legal precedents over the years that have improved the status of many women and children in the process of divorce,” added Dr.
Galit Shaul, executive-director of the Rackman Center.
“The clinic’s legal guidance has helped solve complicated situations of recalcitrant husbands and agunot.”