Sisterhood Blog

New Approach in Israeli Agunah Cases

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

There’s a new tool in the kit available to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce which, according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law, only a man can give.

In Israel, women have begun to file damages claims against their estranged husbands in civil court, and it appears that the threat of being forced to pay their wives damages is enough to get many men to finally give them a Jewish divorce, or get.

The novel approach is being used by Susan Weiss of The Center for Women’s Justice in Jerusalem, who has filed more than 40 such claims on behalf of women tied to dead marriages by their estranged husbands, according to this story in Haaretz. Half those women were able to obtain their divorces within 14 months.

But might it be used in America? According to one authority on Jewish divorce, no. And that’s because of the difference between the way civil courts are regarded by rabbinic courts in Israel and in America. In Israel, even the civil courts are considered Jewish courts. As a result, any financial motivation they may employ is considered by most to be legitimate, said Rivka Haut, an agunah advocate.

In the U.S., “the rabbis are constantly afraid that pressure of any sort by a civil court will result in a get that’s not kosher,” said Haut. “If a Jewish court motivates a man to give a get it’s considered of his own free will. It could be argued that a civil suit like a damages claim constitutes pressure that results in an invalid get. That might be a deterrent here.”

It has become not unusual for an Orthodox man to withhold a get, either to get his estranged wife to make concessions on issues of finances, property distribution, custody and visitation, or out of spite. Cases can last for years and during that time the woman is not permitted to remarry or even date. A survey of agunot in North America from October 2011 found 462 cases over a five year period. According to that study, “there has been an increase in cases of Jewish women being refused a religious divorce by their husbands while the rate of case resolution has been on the decline.”

In one current ongoing case, that of Tamar Epstein, pressure is being brought to bear on the employer of the husband, who works for a member of the House of Representatives, to fire him. Though there has long been hope that rabbis will employ some of the kinds of pressure that in the past motivated recalcitrant men to grant their estranged wives a divorce — like shunning them from their religious communities — it doesn’t usually happen.

Monetary coercion is considered acceptable by many, though not all, Orthodox rabbis, Haut said.

Another approach to financially motivating men to give their wives a get is employed in New York State courts. A 1992 amendment to Equitable Distribution Act gives judges latitude, when dividing a couple’s assets, to take into account the inability of one party to improve herself economically in the future — by remarrying, for instance. “If there is no get and the woman can show that she demanded it, the judge may take into account the fact that her financial future is now impacted because she can’t remarry and improve herself financially. The judge is able to give her a greater share of the assets,” Haut said.

That is accepted by some Orthodox rabbis, often those in the more modern or centrist Orthodox camp, and not others, usually the more right-wing rabbis, she said.

Overall, however, the situation for Orthodox women trying to obtain a Jewish divorce is getting worse instead of better. Rabbinical courts are increasingly pressuring women to withdraw their divorce cases from civil courts and litigate it entirely in a beit din.

Haut sees this as a very dangerous thing for women because American civil courts have different standards and approaches than rabbinical courts, which are an all-male system, and tend to be fairer to women. When women are forced to litigate all aspects of their divorces in rabbinical courts, “they end up with less money and property,” she said.

“If the batei din worked the way they should they would be wonderful and far superior to civil courts. They can be very fast and nowhere as expensive. The pity is that they are so dysfunctional and some are so corrupt, and their guidelines are so damaging to women, that we are always encourage women to go to civil court,” she said. “Even in the right-wing communities women know now that they should go to civil courts first. The problem is they will end up with better conditions, but they might end up without a get.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

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.