#MeToo justice for Weinstein victims, what about Jewish divorces?

Queen Esther saved the Jewish people. The question remains, who will save Jewish women from the abuse of get refusal?

WOMEN SHOULD not have to leverage their freedom simply in order to level the deck.  (photo credit: JTA)
WOMEN SHOULD not have to leverage their freedom simply in order to level the deck.
(photo credit: JTA)
When the verdict came down against Harvey Weinstein, it appeared his victims would finally get justice, but there are an untold number of victims in the Jewish community whose cases never see the light of day, much less a high-profile court decision. These women, refused a get (Jewish divorce) by their husbands are living the reality of domestic abuse every day.
On March 9, we will observe two special events: the Fast of Esther, Ta’anit Esther, leading the way to the joyous holiday of Purim and also International Agunah Day, drawing attention to hidden and silenced women. These days are appropriately linked.
The biblical heroine Esther was forced into an unwanted marriage to King Ahasuerus, according to the Talmud. Esther, whose name is related to the Hebrew word hester, meaning “hidden,” was silenced. Like Esther, agunot (women chained to unwanted marriages) today don’t control their own destinies. They are subject to the whims of a controlling spouse in challenging marriages and they fear for their lives.
Like Esther, the voices of agunot have been hidden and silenced. So we use Ta’anit Esther to publicize the plight of agunot, women refused a get by their recalcitrant husbands. Ultimately, however, Queen Esther saved the Jewish people. The question remains, who will save Jewish women from the abuse of get refusal?
Get refusal is abuse. My research shows that virtually every single incidence of get refusal is precipitated by other domestic abuses. It is often the final vestige of control, and at times husbands attempt to leverage the get in exchange for civil concessions far beyond those they might be entitled to, turning the religious legal requirement into a civil bargaining chip.
Some women even expressed that get refusal is harder to endure than physical violence because “once you remove yourself from the environment of physical abuse, it stops, but the abuse of get refusal follows you everywhere.’
It is troubling that a husband’s refusal to grant a get has come to be normatively recognized as his free will, and not a gross domestic abuse violation which controls the civil legal, halachic (according to Jewish law), psychological, social and marital/sexual destiny of the spouse. We must combat manipulation or subversion of religion by recalcitrant husbands who may become more powerful than the entire community and its leadership.
This is not moral or halachic. The Torah teaches us, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The status quo is simply unacceptable. We must challenge the notion that a get is negotiable.
The notion of negotiating or extorting the get is a relatively new phenomenon in our long history, gaining traction only in the last 50 or so years. It was a learned tactic that has somehow become dangerously hegemonic. We must unlearn that refusing a get or even negotiating for a get is acceptable behavior upon a marriage’s breakdown.
WOMEN SHOULD not have to leverage their freedom simply in order to level the deck. The get must be separate from, prior to, and without the conditions of regular divorce negotiations. We must teach our children, especially our sons. We must speak from pulpits, give classes and homework, write and talk about this among our friends. We must re-educate our community.
Framing get refusal as domestic abuse provides context which both the social and legal worlds can understand, rather than dismissing it as (only) a religious issue or problem. Get refusal is abuse (one of any number of abuses individuals may come to endure in unhealthy marriages).
Power and violence will at times be deployed in conjugal relationships, Jewish or not. There are bad people, some of whom are men who happen to be Jewish, and these bad individuals use whatever tools they have at their disposal to bolster them in their abuse. Sometimes that includes religion.
Leadership must also stand up and say “#AgunotToo.” Abuse in cultural/religious communities is not only about the individual abuser, but about institutions, ideologies, structures and regulating normative orderings, which abusive men manipulate in their favor.
A community rabbi, with training in counseling, told me that it really doesn’t matter if the synagogue down the street had “only one or two agunot out of their 800 members.... Besides, it isn’t my congregation.”
Would the rabbi say the same about other forms of domestic violence?
Abuse in all its forms must be eradicated, and the porous borders between synagogues or rabbis do not absolve any of us from saying time’s up on this abuse.
My research illustrates that the remedy is not to eliminate Jewish observance or halachot (Jewish laws) of marriage and divorce. Women refused a get do not see religion or Jewish law as the problem; rather, they see individual men, rabbis, or rabbinic courts as flawed.
Women see the importance of their religious identity and communal, socio-cultural and religious norms in their lives. Some also say the remedy is also not to establish private contracts as the solution which comes to replace the necessity for basic human rights.
All agree however: Batei din (rabbinic courts) must follow halachic protocol, issue hazmanot (summonses), and issue and widely publicize seruvim (contempt orders). Communities, schools, support organizations, rabbis and individuals likewise have a responsibility to talk openly about the persistence of the abuse of get refusal. Educate children to give and accept the get promptly and unconditionally. Pressure and demand that recalcitrant husbands, rabbis and batei din do the right thing: issue a get, stand up to corrupt courts, and follow halachic protocol.
Support agunot and their children; make them feel welcome in the community and at synagogue. Perhaps just as important, do the opposite for the recalcitrant spouse. They must understand there are consequences to their inaction.
Whether the best remedies come from within the religion or outside it, from within legal systems or from grassroots efforts, the only conclusion that can decisively be drawn is that Jewish women at all levels are faced with this form of abuse and we must rally to help free them.
The writer teaches law and society classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She studies intersections between law and religion and conducted the first comprehensive, qualitative study of Jewish divorce refusal and the first comparative study between Toronto and New York. Contact her at yaelmachtingerphd@gmail.com.