Releasing chained women – by working around the Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi Daniel Sperber is innovating with annulments to help solve the ‘aguna’ problem.

RABBI DANIEL SPERBER: ‘What I’m suggesting is that the Chief Rabbinate treat us like outside consultants for specific issues.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
RABBI DANIEL SPERBER: ‘What I’m suggesting is that the Chief Rabbinate treat us like outside consultants for specific issues.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For the first time in Israel, two women recently received a get (were released from their marriage), following a rabbinic ruling that undermined the policy of Israel’s official Chief Rabbinate’s position.
This was only possible through a private Orthodox rabbinical court, which is not recognized by the state rabbinate and whose decisions challenge the rulings of the rabbinical establishment. The person who heads this court is Rabbi Daniel Sperber, one of the most fascinating figures in the field of Torah study, a professor emeritus of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and the recipient of the Israel Prize in Jewish Studies in 1992.
Two months ago, a private rabbinical court headed by Sperber ruled that after 20 years of being an aguna, or chained in an unwanted marriage, Tzviya Gorodetsky was free; her marriage could be invalidated without a divorce. And a few weeks ago, he annulled the marriage of Oshrat Ben Haim Abergil, who’d been waiting for a get for nine years.
Gorodetsky’s case is considered one of the longest and most difficult aguna cases ever seen in the State of Israel. Her husband Meir opted for languishing in prison in 2001 rather than granting her a get. Gorodetsky, 54, was in her 30s and the mother of four children when the struggle began. The bitter battle has denied her the option of remarrying and bearing more children. Over the years, she has been the sole provider for her children and has accumulated tremendous debt. A year ago, she became so desperate that she carried out a hunger strike in front of the Knesset. Since 2001, Gorodetsky has been assisted by dozens of dayanim (rabbinical judges) who’ve heard her case, but refused to make a ruling.
Sperber’s dayanim made sure that Gorodetsky was aware that the private rabbinic court was not recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and to verify that she wanted to accept the ruling regardless. The private court was established by the Center for Women’s Justice organization, which had been helping Gorodetsky throughout this years-long process, and representatives of the organization were present during the annulment process.
The dayanim’s decision, which is dozens of pages long, rules that the Gorodetskys’ marriage was never valid. Among other things, the dayanim ruled that Gorodetsky would never have married her husband had she known in advance about his personality traits. In addition, she is the one who purchased the wedding ring. Following this ruling, Gorodetsky’s ex-husband might also be released from prison.
Tzviya Gorodetsky’s wedding took place many years ago. How can you say that it’s retroactively invalidated?
“We carried out a thorough investigation,” says Sperber. “It turns out, for example, that the ring had never been owned by the husband. Tzviya is the one who purchased it and she never gave it to him. And if she had known what he was really like, she probably would not have married him.”
Why weren’t the rabbinate’s dayanim able to consider these facts and release her from the marriage?
“That’s a really important question,” continues Sperber. “The way dayanim are appointed is a very political issue. Most of the dayanim on the committee are haredi, and so the dayanim almost always tend to rule by being stricter than necessary. This isn’t necessarily true for all of them, but it is for most. In previous generations, marriages were annulled, and this was not considered a radical move. It’s hard for me to understand how we got where we are today. As a rule, I think we should be lenient when it comes to giving a woman a get and regarding conversions.”
ABOUT A month after the private rabbinical court released Gorodetsky from her marriage, it reconvened again, a few weeks ago, at the behest of Mavoi Satum, another organization that assists agunot (women chained to their marriages). The court also released Oshrat Ben-Haim Abergil by voiding her marriage, based on the fact that one of the two witnesses to the wedding was a convicted pedophile. Ben-Haim Abergil gave birth to a son a few weeks ago.
“The State Rabbinical court did not release her from her marriage despite the fact that a large court asked them to do so,” says Sperber. “They have their own reasons.”
The Ben-Haim Abergil case became publicly wellknown when get-refuser Sharon Ben-Haim, who lives in New Jersey, petitioned the Israel High Court of Justice to invalidate the ruling of the Haifa Rabbinical Court’s ruling, which instructed Jewish communities around the world to exclude him from prayer minyans and not allow him to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But these sanctions were not enough, and after waiting three and a half years for a ruling, the Haifa court rejected Ben-Haim Abergil’s request to annul the marriage on the grounds that one of the witnesses was a pedophile. The court refused to explain the reasoning behind this decision, even in contravention with the two explicit provisions given by the rabbinical court.
In Ben-Haim Abergil’s case, Rabbi Sperber, along with Rabbi Michael Avraham, who is the one who formulated the ruling, and a third learned scholar who did not wish to have his identify publicized, ruled that Ben-Haim Abergil is a single woman and that the child she was carrying in her womb would not be a mamzer.
The private rabbinic court that you head is not legally recognized by the State of Israel. Do think that this will provide an opening for Reform and Conservative rabbinic courts to begin annulling marriages?
“In both of the cases we ruled on, we made it absolutely clear that our court is not recognized by the State of Israel and that the women are still officially registered as married. This means that neither of them can remarry in a ceremony officiated by the Chief Rabbinate. Neither of them cared about how the State of Israel views them. Their only consideration was the halachic ruling. Of course, another court can be established and release women from marriages, but they will have to declare their reasoning. I imagine that most women would prefer to receive an Orthodox ruling.
“On the one hand, rulings by Reform and Conservative courts are not accepted in Israel. On the other hand, I think that every court that publicizes its arguments – its arguments should be examined. If there are Conservative rabbis who are learned scholars and their arguments are solid, then we’ll accept them.
“What I’m suggesting is that the Chief Rabbinate treat us like outside consultants for specific issues. They should examine our opinions just like they would consider the opinion of an expert in any field. Reforms need to be carried out in the area of conversions, too. It would make things much better if we were more lenient in this area.”
IN ADDITION to being a rabbi, a professor emeritus, a rabbinical judge and a lecturer, Sperber, 78, is the father of 10 children and a grandfather to many. In addition, he has been a vegetarian for 70 years, for moral as well as halachic reasons.
“I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a little boy. It’s a terrible thing to kill animals in order to eat them,” Sperber explains. “It’s almost like cannibalism. For people who don’t keep kosher, I don’t see the difference between eating a cow or a dog. It’s absolutely revolting.
“We also need to look at vegetarianism from a halachic point of view. The modern meat industry is very different from how it was a few generations ago when people raised chickens or cows in their yard and then slaughtered them when they got old. There wasn’t a very large supply of food back then and they ate their animals out of necessity. But today, the meat industry is morally objectionable and cruel to animals. Many of the animals are actually not kosher because they’ve been abused. When religious people want to welcome Shabbat with wine and meat, they should check first that the food they are eating is really kosher. Six of my 10 children are vegetarian or vegan, too.”
Sperber is the grandson of Rabbi David Sperber, a member of the Moetzet Gedolei Harorah of Agudath Israel (in Romania and in Israel) and a member of the Beit Din of the Brasov community in Romania. He was born in 1940 in Gwrych Castle in Wales, in a camp for children who had escaped, fled or been smuggled out of areas controlled by the Nazis. The camp was being run by his father, Rabbi Shmuel Sperber and his mother Miriam Sperber. One of Sperber’s children is Avigail Sperber, a filmmaker, activist and founder of Bat Kol, an organization for religious lesbians.
Rabbi Sperber, do you believe that kindness is a family trait that can be passed down from one generation to another? Your parents ran a home for children who fled from the Holocaust and your daughter founded Bat Kol.
“Compassion is learned through education. A child who grows up in a family where the parents have strong moral values is most definitely influenced by that. My parents ran a home in an abandoned castle in the UK that housed 300 Jewish children who escaped the horrors of the Shoah. Almost all of them made aliyah and grew up on religious kibbutzim. I think I was most influenced by my grandfather. I remember that he had a watch that he received as a gift. It was the kind of pocket watch you wear on a chain. It was a status symbol.
“One day, my father saw that my grandfather didn’t have his watch and so my father asked him where it was. My grandfather replied that he’d given it to a certain man. My father then exclaimed, but this person is a rich man and you are poor. My grandfather explained that the rich man had lost all his wealth and was embarrassed to be seen walking around without a watch, since then people would know his financial situation was not good. My grandfather left a very strong impression on me with his words and his actions.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.