Sisterhood Blog

When Divorce Is a Reason To Celebrate

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

“Rachel” an ultra-Orthodox mother of 12 living in Jerusalem, got divorced this week.

It’s cause for celebration for two reasons. First, this grants her much-needed freedom from her severely violent and erratic now-ex-husband, a man who viciously controlled, manipulated and abused her and her children during the marriage and separation. But the real jubilation is because the divorce process – receiving her get – took nine years. Nine years! That’s a marathon that deserves acknowledgment.

Unfortunately, Rachel is not alone.

Thousands of agunot and mesoravot get (women denied divorce) are stuck in limbo – sometimes for years or even decades – neither married nor divorced, waiting for the rabbinical court to come to their aid.

The rabbinical court, or Beit Din, where all divorces in Israel are concluded, is notoriously cruel to women. That’s why aspiring lawyers studying family law in Israel are taught to “race to the courts.” In other words, if you defend a woman, run to file for divorce in the civil courts, and if you defend a man, run to file in the rabbinical courts. Whoever catches the case first adjudicates (on all but the actual get, which is exclusively in the Beit Din).

The moment a woman gathers the courage to leave an abusive spouse should be supported, facilitated and even applauded – but instead the rabbinical courts turn it into the beginning of a horrific saga.

It takes so much internal work for a woman to leave an abusive marriage. She has to make an entire shift in her brain from thinking, “I deserve this,” and “There’s something wrong with me,” to, “No, I don’t deserve it,” and “I can have a better life.” According to Jewish Women International, there are powerful emotional, cultural and economic forces that keep women in abusive marriages – not to mention the logistics of leaving and the very real fear of repercussion.

According to the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence, abused women stay in their relationships for an average of 3-5 years while Jewish women stay for 7-13 years – almost three times as long. The Jewish community seems to punish women for leaving their abusive spouses, and the entire Israeli divorce system supports that.

The divorce system in Israel is in dire need of reform. The religious judges are not held accountable to any body other than their own people, they don’t report to anyone and don’t answer to anyone, and a callous disregard for women’s lives remains entrenched.

One way to deal with this problem is case by case. The organization Mavoi Satum (literally, “The Dead End”), which I helped create and where I’m currently working in the development department, helps women by first and foremost making sure that every woman has legal representation.

Attorney Gitit Nachlieli, director of the Targum Shlishi Legal Aid Fund at Mavoi Satum, has become one of top experts in helping agunot and mesoravot get obtain their gets – an expertise which does not exist in any other democracy in the world. The equivalent of “agunah” does not even exist in any other language. It’s a calamity unique to the Jews.

Another approach is educational. The fact that Jewish women tend to stay longer in abusive relationships reflects that both men and women see this as normal behavior. We need to make efforts to educate differently.

Finally, we need to promote systemic reform, a real alternative to the Beit Din system. Mavoi Satum is leading a campaign, supported by the New Israel Fund, to create an arbitration body that will ultimately function as a viable alternative to the rabbinical courts. There must be another way.

In the meantime, mazal tov to Rachel, and may she be a beacon of hope for all the other agunot and mesoravot get out there. I hope you all find your freedom soon!

Chaim Thu. Oct 22, 2009

The writer is right on the ball! When I was in Yeshivah our Rebbe's used to boast about how great Judaism is for women claiming that the Get protects women so husbands cant indiscriminately divorce their wives. That may have been a step forward but what is happening to Jewish women in the Beis Din in Israel is disgusting. Women are told to 'do sholom bais' with an abusive husband. Amazing? Women are told that if they want a get then they have to make a deal like pay money, give up visitation rights when the man does not deserve it etc. Young women are who are in abusive relationships and want out may wait years before getting a get and may loose th opportunity to remmary and have children. What kind or religion do we have hear. Its very sad. We must support ways to rid ourselves of the Beis Din, rabbis who have very little training in many areas of modern life. Kol Hakavod to those who help these women. You are doing G-ds work!

Danny Thu. Oct 22, 2009

Agunot is certainly a genuine problem, but the figure of 'thouands' is rather too high. When I raised this issue with a Dayan he said the figures were in the dozens -- but even one is too high. If Rachel had 12 children before applying for a divorce, he can't have been that awful. My wife's ex was an abusive Satmarer. She had two children and then took 'precautions'. Halacha permits women to protect themselves against pregnancy in such circumstances. Although the Botei Din in Israel have a bad reputation the underlying principle is not unreasonable : just as there can't be a marriage unless both parties freely enter into it, there can't be a dissolution of a marriage unless both parties agree. In earlier times agunot was a rare problem because if the Beth Din ruled that a husband hnad to give his wife a Get he did so. Divorce itself, of course, was also rare. In Israel today men who refuse are put in prison for contempt of court, but even that doesn't help. Prenuptial agreementys can help and in the UK the civil courts won't grant a civil divorce if there is any impediment to either party remarrying.

Aliza Hausman Thu. Oct 22, 2009

Modern Orthodox rabbis are trying to solve agunot issues by having the couples sign pre-nups.

Danny, however many children Rachel has had with her ex-husband has absolutely no bearing on how much abuse she endured. I found that statement pretty ridiculous.

Briz in Brooklyn Fri. Oct 23, 2009

Danny - sorry, but that's the most idiotic thing you could have said. Perhaps because you are a man; but I'll leave it at that.

I'm grateful not to be married in Israel; though I never have to worry about him raising his hand to me, there are more channels to go through in the US. Israel really has so much work to do on so many fronts concerning family law, among many other issues.

M Fri. Oct 23, 2009

I was married in Israel. But that's another story. I was divorced Jewishly in Detroit. I had to fight for this but I had an excellent attorney (Thank you Bernie if you are reading this) and he had it written into the civil divorce that I would receive a "get". My ex tried to fight it, but in the end after I actually called his attorney's rabbi and practically screamed at him to tell his congregant to get my ex to complete what he had started and then calling the head rabbi of the Detroit area... I finally received the get. It is a shame I had to jump through hoops to receive a get even in the US. My heart goes out to those in Israel that are still waiting for theirs.

Lucky Lenny Fri. Oct 23, 2009

On balance, women in the non-religious world have it much worse; they can't even get married.

Danny Sun. Oct 25, 2009

Aliza and Briz. You're not clear which bit you find ridiculous. The Halacha does permit a woman to use the pill. No woman has twelve childen against her will, nor are phrases like 'notoriously cruel' and 'horrific saga' objective assessments of the Beth Din -- although it might well describe some husbands. I have unfortunately seen a number of divorces in my time and I have seen first hand that when couples agree it is a mere formality. My wife's ex made her wait seven years -- although three Botei Din ruled in her favour. They wanted to publicise his contempt of court, but my wife felt it would embarrass their two children. Both of her children have been married and divorced once -- with no problem whatsoever, and have married a second time to partners who have been divorced once, also as a mere formality. Problems are caused by the husband, not by the Beth Din.

Sara Sun. Oct 25, 2009

It's important not to overgeneralize, I agree, but I'm not sure that Danny's experience is representative. I was active for many years with an organization that helped haredi women deal with issues like exhaustion, depression, and debt. The stories that we used to hear would break your heart. Like the time a woman who found out she was pregnant with her ninth child and was in a terrible state asked her rebbe to have an abortion and he said to her, "Why don't you just kill your first child instead of your last?" Or the time a woman with six children was sent to an infertility clinic because all her friends already had 10 or 12. Things like that. There is a lot of terrible stuff going on with women in the haredi world. So just to say that women are technically "allowed" to do one thing or another does not nearly begin to account for the array of problems faced by haredi women.


Judith Wed. Oct 28, 2009

"No woman has twelve childen against her will" -- on what do you base that? What makes you think that birth control is easily accessible to a woman in an abusive relationship, even if it is legal under halacha? Next you will be saying there is no such thing as marital rape.

Aliza Hausman Wed. Oct 28, 2009

Thank you, Judith!

Elizabeth Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I can't even get a divorce. My husband was born here in the USA, however carries dual citizenship to Israel, was raised in Israel. His whole family lives in Israel. I was mentally abused throughout our marriage and our separation. He is on his 4th lawyer. The judge is dragging his feet. AND because I am a doctor, they think I am well off. So now that I am on the verge of financial ruin, it still doesn't matter and everyone is just dragging their feet because they think they can get more money out of me. We have a beautiful daughter who my husband is using to get back at me. My husband has unlimited means from his family, and they won't be happy until I am completely out of the picture. If anyone can help us, I would greatly appreciate it.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.