Sisterhood Blog

Paying Off Recalcitrant Husbands

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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The High Court in Israel has come down with a decision that formally recognizes the right of the rabbinical court to use charity funds to pay off recalcitrant husbands who are blackmailing their wives in exchange for agreeing to a divorce. That is, the Beit Din is not only supportive of the blackmail process in theory but fully enables it.

This is a process in which the woman says, “I want a divorce,” the man says, “I’ll give it to you for a price,” and the rabbis say, “We’ll pay some, and the woman will pay the rest.” The money comes from a not-for-profit fund controlled by the Beit Din that is called, outrageously enough, The Aguna Fund. Just thinking about our rabbinical justice system in action gives me a migraine.

In this decision, the culmination of a file petitioned by a phenomenal organization, the Jerusalem-based Center for Women’s Justice, Justice Dorit Beinisch wrote that although the issue of chained wives is “one of the most difficult and complex social-legal problems in Israel today,” nevertheless the current set-up in which rabbinical judges pay off recalcitrant husbands provides “unique arrangements to provide concrete solutions in order to resolve certain cases.” What these “resolutions” amount to, according to a report in Haaretz, are cases in which men were paid by the Rabbinical Court anywhere from 8,000 NIS (about $2000) to 65,000 NIS (about $16,5000) in exchange for granting a get.

Certainly the payment in exchange for a woman’s freedom is one means of resolution. And as a result of the ruling, payoff is limited to 10,000 NIS (about $2500), and may only be paid if a committee agrees to it — and the committee must have a woman member. That said, this “resolution” puts the courts, and religious law, to shame.

On some level, perhaps Beinisch is right. After all, if this is what will grant some women freedom, then every solution should be welcomed. Still, I cannot help but wonder what this all means for religious Judaism. This is my Judaism. This is my tool for attaining spirituality, for reaching God, for building a holy community. Yet, this very Judaism not only leaves women out in the cold, but has completely given up on finding a reasonable alternative to managing human relationships, to such an extent that the absurd and shocking has become the norm.

Personally, I am so weary from this conversation, from this battle. I’ve been working on this issue of agunot since 1995, and the first time I published an article in the subject was a column in the Jerusalem Report in 1999. That’s a good portion of my adult life spent trying to push for a different way. I’m just tired of the journey, and I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I remember hearing Susan Aranoff, a remarkable Jewish feminist and activist, speak at a conference, probably in the late 1990’s. She was working on the issue of agunot while I was still in elementary school. She looked out at the audience and said, “I’ve been talking about this for nearly 30 years. I can’t do it anymore. It’s up to all of you, the young women sitting in the audience.” I felt like she was handing me the baton. I took it. I’m still holding it. But I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on. Not when decisions like this come out and make me feel like it’s all moving backwards.

Orthodox feminism effectively has as its mantra, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” That is, do not give up on halacha, on Orthodoxy and on Jewish life; find solutions within the system. But I find myself asking whether there really is a proverbial baby in there at all. When I hear about practices like this Aguna Fund, I shake my head in disbelief and wonder, what is at the core of halacha? Is there a core of kindness and compassion? Where is the root of Judaism that teaches us to care about the suffering of our fellow human beings? What has Judaism become?

I do not have a good answer, and I’m feeling very sad.


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