Israel's 'chained women' struggle with the rabbinate for a divorce

Each year there are created hundreds of reported and unreported cases of women unable to terminate their marriages.

THE RABBINICAL court in Tel Aviv
According to Jewish law, when a marriage can no longer continue, it is the sole duty of the husband to present his wife a get (religious bill of divorce) in front of a rabbinical court in order to terminate the marriage. What happens if the wife wants to divorce her husband and he refuses to let her go? 
This creates a phenomenon where the wife becomes an aguna (Hebrew for a “chained woman”). Each year are created hundreds of reported and unreported cases of women unable to halachically terminate their marriages. Tzvia Gordesky, who has been chained to her husband for the past 17 years, has sought to increase media coverage of her situation. With a hunger strike attempt in front of the Knesset, she has raised awareness about her plight and that of hundreds of women who find themselves not only at the mercy of abusive husbands, but also the victims of an unhelpful rabbinate and an unresponsive government.
Today the situation does not seem to be improving. As surveys indicate, 19% of women in the process of divorce are denied a get, which translates to some 3,000 chained women.
While this issue plagues the country, there are groups committed to bringing about change to ensure the safety and dignity of these women. They are working to help them find ways to not be completely dependent on their husbands to terminate a marriage.
Although their aim is to put an end to this situation, and these groups generally work together to help these chained women, at the end of the day they are in competition with one another when it comes to outside funding and resources.
The first group, which came into existence over 20 years ago, is Yad L’isha, the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, part of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone organization. The group offers solutions to the aguna problem through religious means that work within the framework of Jewish law and practice.
Yad L’isha handles some 150 cases a year under the leadership of director Pnina Omer. She oversees a team of rabbinical court advocates, most of whom are civil attorneys who are experts in Jewish law and fluent in the language of the religious courts. In addition, the staff also includes social workers who handle the emotional and day-to-day stress involved in the process.
Omer explains the urgency of the issue. “The issue of mesuravot get [women denied divorce by recalcitrant husbands] and agunot is one of the most difficult issues facing the Jewish world,” she says.
“As an organization experienced in the halachic discourse on the matter of agunot, we try to promote halachic solutions within the religious courts; but the public should not sit idly by. Society must take responsibility and use the tools which are available to change our future reality.”
She notes the history behind the marriage and divorce process in the Jewish community, and how often in the past women were protected from what we are seeing today. “Historically, Judaism was the most advanced religion in the world in relation to divorce and the rights of women.
“The ketuba [marriage contract] was designed to protect women’s rights," said Rabbi Gershom – known as the Light of the Diaspora, who lived during the Middle Ages – enacted an edict declaring that a woman may not be divorced against her will, and that just as a husband delivers the get, a wife must agree to accept it.
“The spirit of the Halacha is to do everything possible to release agunot from their chains and be lenient in the laws relating to agunot; this has been the Jewish custom throughout the years.”
However, something changed in modern times, when Omer says an erosion of the afore-mentioned approach occurred. “Today, being a woman in the process of divorce has become a disadvantage.
“In addition, the process itself has changed over the years. Today, the majority of cases are the result of the husband’s refusal to give his wife a get, rather than the result of a tragedy which caused the husband to disappear.
“The premeditated, intentional creation of agunot through get-refusal is a cynical and despicable misuse of halacha. The matter has become a social phenomenon. As a social activist and a religious woman, I felt driven to devote my time and energy to this cause,” Omer says.
She also believes that creating a stigma within religious communities toward men who refuse to give their wives a get could also prove effective. “First, we must adopt an uncompromising stance which eradicates get-refusal. People tend not to get involved, but we must all understand that it is our moral and ethical obligation to say no to aginut [the state of being an aguna].
“Not to conduct business with a get-refuser, not to study with him, not to greet him, not to allow him to be called up to the Torah and more, all in the spirit of the exclusionary sanctions outlined by Rabbeinu Tam.”
However, Omer explains that across the board a key solution is knowledge and preparedness before the wedding. “It is important to promote the signing of prenuptial agreements. We must bring forth a reality in which no couple would entertain the thought of getting married without this insurance certificate, through which they are taking responsibility for each other’s freedom.
“It is also worthwhile to sign a contract of obligation, so that if the husband becomes incapacitated and is unable to give his wife a get – in cases of medical or mental illness, for example – he preappoints an emissary who is permitted to release his wife.”
Unlike Yad L’isha, the Rackman Center uses civil law to help solve the problem. According to its website, the center believes in a “dual-track approach for bringing about mobilization and social change.” It works both within and beyond the religious world to change the Jewish legal system using its own tools and methodology, at the same time enabling each citizen of Israel a choice of marriage ceremonies which suit their beliefs.
Ruth Halpern-Kedari, an accomplished lawyer specializing in family law, heads the Rackman Center. Involved in the struggle to end the aguna crisis for the past 10 years, Halpern-Kedari realizes that family law is key, and this is where women’s rights are being hampered.
“The State of Israel does not permit civil marriages and divorces,” she notes. For her, this goes to the heart of the matter, explaining that, in terms of Jewish law, matters of divorce are entirely in the hands of men.
“I don’t want to use the word crazy, but it’s just unthinkable, and to have to explain this to scholars and people in other countries – it just does not make sense. This is not a democratic state. That our lawmakers do not allow people to control their personal realms and rights, forcing religious laws on people, is a violation of the state’s citizens and it is not democratic.”
She explains that the rabbinical court system opens the door to a number of abuses by which women become victims of extortion. If a woman wants a divorce, the husband can take full liberties with children and money, and according to Halpern-Kedari, most of the women dealing with this come from more religious and less educated homes.
The group Mavoi Satum (“dead end”) has been around since 1995 for chained women in Israel. In addition to providing legal representation for agunot, the group also offers emotional and psychological support as well as “empowerment training.”
On a larger scale, Mavoi Satum advocates for reform in Israel’s legal system that governs marriage and divorce, plus a public awareness campaign.
Ruth Tik has been in charge of the social services wing of Mavoi Satum for the past eight years. She believes that in addition to the legal help the group is offering, the work that they do on an individual level is crucial, not only in remedying the problem, but also in preventing it.
“By providing necessary social aid, including courses such as ‘handywoman’ courses, and offering agunot advice on how to speak to the press, the women not only become empowered, but they become agents of change,” Tik explains.
The legal issues are vital, but individual women also need to be taken care of in addition to raisinggeneral awareness to prevent more agunot cases in the future.
Tik further describes the work of Mavoi Satum in terms of raising awareness, including advocating for civil marriages and prenuptial agreements.
Not all of the chained women come from haredi or even religious backgrounds. According to Tik, some 30% are secular and the group has always helped women who are not religious. “People should be aware when their kids get married. This problem does not only affect the haredim. Knowledge is the most important part.”
The Center for Women’s Justice was founded in 2004 by attorney Susan Weiss, who sees the aguna situation getting better and worse at the same time.
“I’m seeing a polarization in both ways – the public is way more sensitive than before. The awareness is much greater, and prenuptial agreements are helping. I don’t think a man should determine a divorce in the 21st century.
“Ancient law should not be guiding us in a democratic state. We have to have civil marriage and divorce in Israel.”
Dedicating her entire professional career to the aguna, Weiss began volunteering at the Women’s International Zionist Organization when she arrived in Israel years ago. While working there, she saw the rights of women being compromised and decided to take matters into her own hands, and opened a legal practice for women struggling to get a divorce.
She laments what she sees as an absurd situation; that the agunot matter is still an issue in today’s Israel.
“The state is divided into two,” she says. “One is that women can be fighter pilots, and two, that they can’t get a divorce.”
Weiss believes that the government best serves its citizens through civil law. However, the religious arm of the government is inhibiting people’s civil rights from becoming a reality.
“Once the power of the rabbinate in Israel is diminished and civil law prevails, then issues of human rights, especially ones concerning the agunot, will improve, by not getting married through the rabbinate and signing prenuptial agreements. All of this is helping us, I hope,” Weiss adds.
Overall, the general consensus among these groups is clear. The problem of the aguna is too large to ignore and all of these groups are striving to come up with viable solutions, both social and legal. They see that the government is an important tool to enact policy changes that will protect these women and that reflect the will of the people and not the rabbinate.
In the meantime, being aware of alternatives to prevent future cases of agunot is an important step that these groups are getting behind, in addition to working within the rabbinical courts and the government to free our chained women.