Today, the Jewish world mourns a great loss: Rav Ovadia Yosef, a spiritual leader of the Sephardic community and founder of the Shaas Party has passed away.
The Baghdad-born rabbi, who died at the age of 93, will be remembered as an active political player and major Torah scholar. And although not all of his views towards women were progressive, his efforts towards helping Jewish women is something not to be overlooked. Indeed, he was heavily involved in permitting more than 1,000 agunot — literally, women chained — to remarry after the Yom Kippur War.
While Rabbi Yosef was serving as Tel Aviv’s Chief rabbi in 1973, he was approached by IDF General Mordechai Piron regarding a serious problem: nearly 1,000 women were left in a state of limbo. Their husbands had not returned from the battlefield, but there was no way to confirm their deaths. Without obtaining evidence of death, or a get, a religious divorce, these women were left as agunot — “chained” and unable to remarry.
The tawdry spectacle of “get” refusal and extortion in Jewish divorce has made the rounds in both Jewish and secular media for decades. But the Jewish community now faces an historic opportunity. We have within our hands the data on which to base a plan of action to alleviate the plight of “agunot” and a tool to drastically cut the future risk of chained women.
A 2011 survey of agunot in the U.S. and Canada, co-sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU), Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), revealed 462 cases of agunot between 2005 and 2010. While the survey understates the problem due to some right-wing organizations’ refusal to respond, the results clearly outline the case for a clarion call to action.
Most agunot are under 40 years old. They have children yet little money, and are unaware of even the limited resources available to them. During the survey period, religious courts considered just half of reported cases, and contempt of court citations were infrequently issued against recalcitrant husbands. When a case did go to rabbinical court, some agunot were required to forgo financial payments or custody of their children in exchange for a get.
On a recent Sunday evening in Jerusalem, 25 married couples gathered to have both partners in each pair sign a “mutual respect contract.” The contract was created by three Orthodox rabbis at the behest of Mavoi Satum, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to combating abuse of the Jewish divorce process.
If the couple decides to divorce, the mutual respect contract is brought to family court, which adjudicates the couple’s secular divorce and shares it with the rabbinical court overseeing the religious divorce, also known as a get. The contract stipulates that if either member of the couple delays the divorce process by more than six months — if the woman refuses to accept a get or the man refuses to grant it — then the recalcitrant spouse must pay the other $1,500 a month or half his or her salary, whichever is greater.
It sounds similar to the pre-nuptial contract (which can also be signed after a couple is already married) created and promoted by the Orthodox group the Rabbinical Council of America. That contract, which can be seen here, requires that if a couple separates, the husband pay his estranged wife $150 a day until a Jewish divorce is granted. If his wife refuses to appear before the Beth Din of America, then his obligation ends.
The contract has been considered controversial by some rabbis, who believe that any financial inducement for a man to give his estranged wife a get is tantamount to coercion, and therefore invalidates the Jewish divorce.
But Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, director of the Beth Din of America, the rabbinical court connected with the RCA, which adjudicates divorces, put it another way: “It provides an incentive for the get to be given earlier rather than later,” he told The Sisterhood. “It creates an obligation on the part of the husband to support his wife so long as they are married under Jewish law but not living together.”
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.
Never before has so much public pressure been brought to bear on an American man for refusing to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get. There have been public demonstrations against Aharon Friedman, and articles in prominent publications, public calls by one of the nation’s leading Orthodox rabbis, and lots of back-channel efforts as well. One of the country’s prominent Orthodox religious courts has decreed Friedman in contempt of court. Yet none of it has worked. Now those who want to persuade Friedman to free his ex-wife from the bonds of a dead marriage are turning to his employer, who is one of the most powerful members of Congress.
“A social-media campaign is being waged to pressure Rep. Dave Camp to encourage a top staffer to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, and the lawmaker restricted public posts on his Facebook page after a flood of comments about the issue,” according to this article on the inside-the-beltway website Politico.
Friedman and Tamar Epstein were divorced in civil court in 2010, after separating in 2008, shortly before their second wedding anniversary and when their daughter was an infant. Friedman works as tax counsel to Camp, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
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.
I come from a family where halacha is championed alongside the freedom and power of the individual. It is a hard balance to forge, and it is one that comes with contradictions and hurdles. Recently in the news was the story of a Capitol Hill staffer who would not grant his wife a get, or a Jewish divorce decree. On the one hand, I find there to be something sacred about the untouchable nature of halacha. On the other hand, I cannot support a belief system that allows for women’s freedoms to be taken away without any real repercussions according to the law.
I emailed a New York Times article about the divorce dispute to a friend, who subsequently expressed his dismay that the Orthodox belief system could survive with such an edict intact. I argued that at least the Orthodox community is taking measures against those men who refuse their wife a get. At present, a common communal response against a man who leaves his wife an agunah, or a chained woman, is social pressure and threats of being ostracized, in addition to other halachic creations like prenuptial agreements and inserting minor mistakes in the wedding ceremony that could allow grounds for a halachic divorce without needing a get.
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?
Punk movement’s Jewish roots are hardly a secret and have long been explored. But a punk band that creates music videos to promote the importance of freeing agunot — women tied to unwanted marriages because their estranged husbands refuse to give them a get, or a religious divorce — is something new.
An under-the-radar band called The Groggers recently released their music video “Give Her a Get,” which has become a YouTube sensation in some circles. The video speaks directly to a stereotypical misogynistic husband, and the song’s lyrics include: “You’ve been on a losing streak/Since the sheva brachot week/When did the magic die/When did things get so bleak …You got a get, get, get, get — give her a get, ’cause she don’t love you no more.”
Watch it here:
I’m on the fence about this video: The song’s message is clearly valuable, but then is it not somehow cheapened by the parody factor? One thing I know for sure: The tune is absolutely infectious, and I have to do something to “get” it out of head, before I come home tonight. I’m not sure if my wife would appreciate me singing it around the house.
Hat tip to Matthue Roth.
“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.