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!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • 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.