Halitza shoe in the Bata Shoe Museum/Wikicommons
Responding to numerous complaints from women, a religious advocacy group in Israel is urging the Chief Rabbinate to regulate an obscure Jewish “spitting” rite.
The rite in question, performed in the Orthodox community, is known as “Halitza” and is required of women who have been widowed with no children and who wish to remarry. In ancient times, the brother of the deceased husband was required to marry the widow. The “Halitza” rite frees him of that obligation. In the ceremony, the woman removes or loosens her brother-in-law’s shoe and then spits in his direction to indicate her disgust with his refusal to marry her. She then recites the following words: “So shall be done to a man who refuses to build up his brother’s house.”
According to ITIM, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of individuals facing obstacles under Israeli religious law, about 20-25 women a year in Israel are subjected to this rite. Should they remarry without participating in the rite, according to Jewish law, their children would be considered bastards and cannot marry in a religious ceremony.
“In the past year, we’ve received a number of phone calls from women who felt uncomfortable and humiliated while participating in this rite, and for that reason, we’ve drafted proposals to regulate it,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, told Haaretz.
The proposals were purposely submitted to coincide with International Agunah Day, which falls tomorrow on the Fast of Esther. Agunot are Jewish women who are “chained” to their marriages, in most cases because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce. Widows whose brothers-in-law refuse to “release” them through the Halitza rite are also considered Agunot of sorts.
Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), Carmel (Menashe Noy) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) in GETT. Courtesy of Music Box Films
Purim is this week. I hope to join a women’s reading of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther). I like hearing women’s voices in the synagogue, center-stage. I admire Queen Vashti’s nerve, even though she does get her head chopped off. And I wonder about Queen Esther. After all, she sleeps with the enemy.
But I don’t look forward to International Agunah day, the day before Purim, on the Fast of Esther. That’s the day that Jewish women (and others) have designated to protest the (on-going) plight of Jewish women stuck in bad marriages, agunot. Though I have dedicated much of my adult life to helping agunot, I am tired of the endless finger-wagging at, and rallying against, the wrong target — “bad” husbands or “incompetent” rabbis. Oh sure there are bad husbands and incompetent rabbis, but they are not the reason that we Jewish women, especially those of us living in Israel, find ourselves in this relentless quagmire. Nor is it the reason that other women living under religious laws find themselves in similar predicaments.
Image by Jeff Belmonte, via Wikimedia Commons
They say that history repeats itself. They say that human nature never changes. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All these phrases which do or do not express common wisdoms do actually come together when examining the connection between Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Queen Esther which is commemorated the day before Purim on the 13th of Adar) and International Agunah day which was set to fall on the same day (this year March 4th).
What then is the meaning of having International Agunah Day on the same day that Ta’anit Esther is observed? The key to the answer lies with the woman (as do many of today’s dilemmas within Judaism). Or perhaps more accurately — the untenable situation in which the Jewish woman finds herself through no fault of her own.
The commonality between the woman who was Queen Esther and the woman who is a modern-day agunah exists on two levels—the aspect of her distress and the nature of her salvation.
Yesterday on XOJane, my favorite site for a good ol’ fashioned hate-read, there’s a first person post from Chaya Kurtz, a Chassidishe married woman, who writes in the response to the waves of negative press the Orthodox community has received in the wake of the gathering of 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field this past Sunday in order to protest the internet. Most notably, women were not allowed to attend the rally and this fact has resulted in charges of misogyny directed at Orthodox Jews.
Chaya is here to tell us that it aint so. She’s a married, Orthodox woman with a degree in women’s studies (no less) from a large, liberal university. And she’s totally happy with her life, and would like to disabuse the masses about the perceived misogyny in Orthodox Judaism.
Some of the things that she insists on, I won’t quibble with. Yes, I certainly hope that ultra-Orthodox women find their husbands attractive and it’s unfair to suggest that they wouldn’t. I would never suggest that a hipster male is fundamentally unattractive just because I don’t find him appealing so on that point, Chaya, we definitely agree: Attraction is in the eye of the beholder.
But even within that section, there’s already a problem. She writes: “In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife.” While this is all well and true, there’s a part she left out — that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she’s a possession. You see, women are a protected class within Orthodoxy. Yes, you have to treat them right, but they are still subordinate. Don’t believe me? Read the last six months of articles in the general press about agunot.
In her Sisterhood post “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep,” Dvora Meyers takes on a grassroots campaign to pressure Michigan Rep. Dave Camp to condemn what we consider to be abusive behavior by his staffer, Aharon Friedman. In the past, Camp has called Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish divorce decree, or a get, “gossip.” It is time for Camp to recognize this error and do what is right.
The facts of this case are not under dispute. Friedman married Tamar Epstein in April 2006. The marriage failed, and Friedman and Epstein were civilly divorced in 2010, after being separated for two years. For Epstein, an Orthodox Jew, civil divorce is insufficient. Jewish law mandates a religious divorce decree, or get, which must be consented to by both parties. But Friedman has refused thus far to give Epstein a get, and that shows a basic disregard for human decency. He’s been banned from his synagogue, and a prominent rabbinical court has issued a public declaration condemning his intransigence.
In effect, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman.” She cannot remarry in a religious ceremony. And because Epstein is an Orthodox Jew, that effectively means that Friedman (also Orthodox) is deliberately preventing her from remarrying.
Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of attention paid to the unfortunate case of Tamar Epstein, an Orthodox woman who has been trying to get a Jewish divorce decree, or a get for more than four years from her husband Aharon Friedman. Though he’s already her ex-husband in all matters civil and fiscal, he is still her spouse in the eyes of her faith, and this leaves Epstein unable to remarry in the Jewish tradition, and move on with her life.
“He is thus inflicting great emotional abuse upon her,” wrote Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue, in Washington D.C., on the Huffington Post. He and other Jewish leaders have been calling on Friedman’s boss, Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, to reprimand or fire him since other efforts at communal coercion, including blacklisting, picketing and shunning, have failed. (See this recent Sisterhood post on the subject.)
However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?
The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
According to this story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the rabbinate there has threatened to jail a 59-year-old woman if she continues to refuse to accept a religious divorce, known as a get, from her husband.
The news report says:
The woman, who lives in the center of the country, is refusing to accept the divorce from her husband because of an ongoing property dispute between the two. “I won’t take the get under any circumstances, even if they take me to jail,” the woman told Haaretz Monday. “I’m made of steel, you can’t break me.”
Usually the shoe is on the other foot, and we read about men refusing to grant their wives a divorce or extorting a payoff in order to do so. The power to grant a divorce, according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law, rests only in the hands of the man. But the woman must accept the divorce, as much as she must accept the marriage contract handed to her under the wedding canopy.
When Helen Sieger died on the day before Passover this year, at just 57 years old, in a hospital used for inmates of Riker’s Island, it was a sad end to a life with many sad chapters.
Helen — or Chayie — Sieger’s story was well-known in Haredi circles in Brooklyn. But when her saga became the subject of a New York magazine feature story in 2003, she became a household name.
After nearly a quarter-century of being a dutiful wife to Chaim Sieger, mother to a son and a daughter, and part of Brooklyn’s Bobov Hasidic community, when her husband remarried without granting her a Jewish divorce, she sued him and the rabbis who, she alleged he bribed, in civil court. The rabbis had provided Chaim Sieger with a heter meah rabbonim, permission from 100 rabbis allowing her to re-marry without granting his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.
In 1995 Chayie Sieger did something Bobov women had almost never done: She left her husband, who according to the New York magazine story, was a serial philanderer and gambler, to move to her father’s home a few doors down.
A man withholding a Jewish divorce — known as a get — is liable for money damages to his estranged wife, according to a recent decision handed down by a Tel Aviv appeals court.
The January 31 decision dismissing the husband’s effort to overturn a 700,000-shekel [about $188,000] lower court judgment against him for withholding the get offers hope to other wives chained to dead marriages, according to some agunah activists. Others who advocate for agunot say that the case will have no impact outside of Israel. An agunah is a woman who may not remarry because her estranged husband will not give her a divorce.
The couple at the center of the recent Israeli court decision lived together for just three months after their wedding, and the husband has refused to give his wife a get for all of the intervening 16 years since then.
The new appellate court decision means that, unless Israel’s Supreme Court overturns it, it will serve as a precedent in all family law there, according to the Center for Women’s Justice, the Israeli non-profit that has provided legal counsel to the wife since 2004. The Center was successful in framing the legal issue as a matter of damages for a violation of the wife’s human rights.
Imagine investing in a business; the partnership sours, but the freedom to begin anew depends on your ex-partner honoring his obligation to sign your walking papers.
This scenario best describes what confronts a Jewish woman when a marriage is over: a man must give his estranged wife a *get a religious divorce decree, without which she is not free to remarry under the canopy of a Jewish wedding.
Why flip a business analogy on this? Because in a marriage, both spouses bring equity and invest mutual resources of love, time and sacrifice to build a lasting relationship.
The dark side of this get issue began to surface in the 1970s, as these decrees, in some instances, became a bargaining chip to win concessions on child custody and financial support. But aside from 40 years of hand-wringing and conferences about get and the plight of the agunah (chained woman), what’s changed?
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.
While the Jewish community has long wrung its collective hands over the plight of agunot — “chained” women, stuck in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to provide them with Jewish divorce papers — little is known about who and how numerous these women are. That is why Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, decided to embark on what is believed to be the first comprehensive survey on the state of the agunah in North America. The Sisterhood recently interviewed Zakheim about the survey’s methodology, its goals and what the Jewish community can do to erradicate the problem of agunot.
What compelled you to spearhead this effort?
Two catalysts: 1). The cancellation of the proposed rabbinical conference on agunot that was to take place in Israel in 2007. 2). Attendance at several Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conferences, where the agunah situation was always discussed but no tangible progress seemed to be made.
What’s your sense of how widespread the problem is?
You can learn an incredible amount about different people from language. There are, for example, 27 words for “moustache” in Albanian – including a word for what English-speakers would call “no moustache.” It seems that in Albania, moustaches are pretty important. Similarly, the Inuit are famous for having 30 words for snow – clearly they see things in the snow that most of us don’t.
Unique linguistic forms abound, and provide intriguing insights into cultures. According to this book,” Pascuense in Easter Island has a word for a slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much (“ngaobera”) and and Brazilian Portuguese has a word for the practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents until the insect’s excrement makes the paper look convincingly old (“grigalem”). So what’s Hebrew’s he claim to fame?
I would have liked to find a word, perhaps, for that hand gesture of squeezing thumb and middle finger in order to indicate to the viewer, “wait.” But no, we Jews are not quite that lucky. Instead, what distinguishes our culture is that ours is the only language in the world that has the word “agunah.”