The Human Spirit: Nineteen years of agony

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
In the Jewish world we try to educate our offspring to social consciousness, and are generally delighted when the younger generation takes up our causes. Not this time. That on Rosh Hodesh Adar the latest demonstration to protest the abusive system of getting a divorce in Israel was organized specifically by young women is a cause of great sorrow and shame. We should have solved this problem by now. This crucial issue has been in the public sphere for longer than many of the participants have been able to speak, let alone stand up for a cause. In the enlightened culture to which we have committed ourselves we have been unable to fix a system which compounds the pain of divorce with fear and extortion. We're quick to prescribe solutions for the oppressed of other nations: They should rebel and throw off the shackles of their despotic rulers - but where are we? I recently met with a group of top American Jewish campus leaders from the Hillel organization to answer questions about life in Israel. The subject of divorce was on their agenda, even though none of these Jewish young men and women were married. My normal instincts to urge aliya were inhibited. But whether you live in Aspen or Addis, it's easier to get a Jewish divorce in the Diaspora than it is in the Jewish state. In a description of the tortured process, my advocacy of the traditional Jewish value of marriage would have sounded absurd. Who would willingly enter a system in which the Israel rabbinical courts have power over you? If you're a man not usually inclined to manipulation, you might feel like a foolish wimp if you don't engage in a little exploitation. IN CASE YOU missed the latest twist in the rabbinical court's demonic domination over human rights, let me present the case of Rachel Abraham. Hers isn't just another story of a woman impoverished and humiliated by divorce procedure. Abraham wanted to leave her abusive husband even when she was a young woman, but his tearful protestations of love, combined with vows that he'd kill himself if she left him, made her hesitate. Then he stopped threatening to kill himself; it was her he promised to kill. In 1987 Abraham approached the rabbinical court to get a divorce. After 12 years of debate in which already-agreed-upon matters were raised over and over, Abraham signed an unfavorable property agreement and at last gained a Jewish divorce certificate. But the injustice of the exploitation irked her, and she applied to the High Court of our country's secular court system to get back some of what she'd given up under pressure. The justices rejected her request: An agreement is an agreement. Well, not quite. When they learned that she had approached the secular court system, the rabbinical court judges decided that Abraham's divorce needed to be reinvestigated. The rabbinical court was recalling a decree already granted. That was back in 1999. More than six years later a new grouping of rabbinical court justices, with Rabbi Amar sitting, ruled that the original divorce decree was indeed valid. Nineteen years after applying to the court, Rachel Abraham was now a divorced woman. She'd started what should have been a dignified, if cheerless, procedure at age 36. When the divorce came through she was 55. Over the course of her two-decade struggle, Abraham received help from three praiseworthy activist organizations: Yad L'Isha, Mevoi Satum, and the Center for Women's Justice. She waged a public battle with the help of these organizations and with wide media coverage. And it still took 19 years. Without them, she'd still be waiting. After all, others have waited longer. WE HAVE so much beauty and wisdom in Judaism. How can we allow the perpetuation of a system that frightens a new generation away from the values we hold dear? We aren't allowed in our tradition to shrug off injustice. Just the opposite; we are mandated to develop an inner sense of right and wrong that never allows us to cover up wrongs with prooftexts. If anything, our sacred texts teach us that the judicial system is a true measure of the moral tone of our society. Over the 19 years Rachel Abraham waited for her divorce, hundreds of thousands of Jewish brides have wed without even the partial protection of a standard prenuptial agreement. Rabbis have suggested halachic solutions to thorny problems, but they're not being used. Despite the notorious, delinquent behavior of rabbinical court justices who eschew their explicit religious and civil service obligations to show up at court regularly and on time, no one publishes a weekly record of rabbinical court proceedings. Instead of repeat showings of Anat Tzuria's movie Mekudeshet - "Sentenced to Marriage" - which focuses the light of a video camera on a draconian world, we get superficial programs in the TV religious slots. Our country's divorce rate is rising, and more and more men and women are being exposed to the rabbinical courts. Ironically, in the Jewish state rabbis may apply unique civil sanctions to make it clear to belligerent husbands that while the dissolution of marriage is unfortunate, it should not be torture. Also ironically, the protest described above fell in the Hebrew month of Adar, a traditional season of joy. How can we face our daughters and granddaughters?