Building bridges

There is a bridge between the laws that govern the rabbinical courts and the challenges stemming from divorce in the modern age.

Religious woman covering face behind bars (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Religious woman covering face behind bars
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There’s a well-known story about the footbridge next to the legendary city of Chelm, whose many broken planks caused travelers to plummet into the troubled waters below. The wise men of Chelm considered the situation carefully for seven days and seven nights before coming up with an ingenious solution: We must build a hospital under the bridge to care for those who fall.
There is also a bridge between the laws that govern the rabbinical courts and the challenges stemming from divorce in the modern age, a bridge that must be traversed by every woman who desires a divorce – and every husband who refuses, for whatever reason, to grant it. Like the one in Chelm, this bridge is rickety and unstable.
Agunot and mesuravot-get (women who are chained to their marriages as a result of being denied a religious writ of divorce by recalcitrant husbands) dangle on this unstable bridge, unable to go back, yet prevented from reaching the other side.
They are suspended between the shattered dream of a happy marital life and the get which will enable them to embark upon the next phase of their life journey.
There are a number of ways of approaching this problem and a number of excellent organizations involved in seeking a solution.
There are those who shout from the soapbox, urging women not to get married or, at the very least, not to get married without the appropriate legal protection – highlighting the disadvantages of women on the bridge, pointing an accusatory finger at the rabbinate, constantly reminding everyone that the bridge needs repair.
There are other organizations which try to build roads that will detour around the bridge, attempting to arrive at the desired divorce on the other side without having to cross the dilapidated bridge at all.
There are committees and papers and conferences and panels and seminars analyzing in detail how the bridge might be repaired, and who can be trusted to repair it.
Perhaps a second bridge should be built, to compete with the first. And there are those who aren’t even interested in seeking an alternative means of crossing, before declaring that the unsound, unbalanced bridge must be immediately burned down.
But there are also those who devote their lives to search and rescue, and those who work toward locating and rescuing the actual travelers – in this case, the agunot and mesuravot get who are terrified and stuck in mid-journey with no recourse, who need to be saved from a life in which they must choose between remaining suspended in midair and hurtling headfirst into the abyss.
In the past six months alone, women rabbinical court advocates from the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center-Yad L’isha – have rescued 49 mesuravot get and agunot from the bridge in the face of innumerable obstructions and strong winds, steadfastly guiding them to safety on the other side. Needless to say, each of these women represents an entire world.
BUT AT the same time, while our advocates are already on the bridge rescuing a traveler, so to speak, we also make the effort to replace at least one broken or missing plank. We represent our clients in the rabbinical courts by extrapolating modern grounds for divorce from the ancient Jewish laws, translating Halacha in ways which have bearing on modern-day scenarios, and creating parallels between the realities of contemporary living and Jewish legal writings.
As such, each time the rabbis accept our creative legal interpretations enabling us to close a case – and free a trapped woman – we are simultaneously strengthening the bridge, so the next woman will be able to take surer steps and travel farther and farther.
The bridge is long and there are many, many planks which are still in dire need of repair or replacement, there is no question.
And yet, since Yad L’isha’s inception 16 years ago, as the result of our close partnership with the rabbinical courts’ special unit on agunot and other relevant parties, we are finally beginning to reap the fruits of a long labor. The atmosphere in the rabbinical courts has changed: Today, a judge who releases an aguna is considered to be a “good” judge. There are many judges who are open to legal arguments bridging between past and present, and who seek creative halachic solutions alongside our advocates.
The judges who have been appointed in the last two rounds are beginning to find their voice; many are handing down rulings which are compatible with modern society and adopt the progressive legal reasoning that Yad L’isha’s advocates have been arguing for years. This has resulted in the breaking of new ground with legal decisions which – while steeped in Halacha – relate to contemporary matters. (For example, Halacha states that “he who throws away his money on prostitutes” is grounds for divorce in Jewish law. We successfully argued for an updated interpretation in which “he who throws away his money on gambling or drugs” is considered parallel Jewish legal grounds for obligating the divorce.) In the very near future, the committee to appoint new rabbinical court justices will convene once again and a record number of judges will be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Due to our lobbying – together with several other organizations devoted to the plight of chained women –the law has been changed so that, from now on, four of 11 members on the committee are mandated for women – including one rabbinical court advocate.
We hope that the newly appointed judges will be capable bridge-builders. We at Yad L’isha will persist in our daily search and rescue work while continuing to toil toward the bridge’s ultimate repair, plank by plank.
 The writer is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as director of the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline- Yad L’isha, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network. Learn more via Yad L’isha’s hotline, 1-800-200-380; or