The Bintel Brief

Bintel Brief: Blu and Yitz Greenberg Say Don’t ‘Get’ Revenge on Your Ex

By Yitz Greenberg and Blu

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Dear Blu and Yitz,

On lawyer’s advice, my (ex-)wife refuses to accept a get (yet the divorce is all her doing), and for over 10 years refuses me regular visits with our children. (The visits are irregular, essentially when she feels like it, on her lawyer’s advice.)

My question is, when she decides she wants a get (i.e., when she meets someone), would it be morally wrong for me to demand my excessive (i.e., excess over “normal”) legal expenses and/or some sort of damages for her improper actions?

My wife and I are observant Orthodox Jews so she would need a get. I obtained the appropriate “dispensation,” but I find the women I date are very apprehensive about me not having visitation and assume something is wrong with me.

GET GELT?

Yitz and Blu reply:

We feel some unease in answering your question without knowing the following:

Is your wife’s power to deny your visits to the children “when she feels like it” connected in any way to her refusal to accept the get? Why do women you now date continue to feel apprehensive even after you’ve explained why your ex-wife has no get? Finally, since your wife is “observant Orthodox” and “the divorce is all her doing,” why is she refusing the get? Presumably she wants to create a new life for herself and her children, yet without a get she may not date, much less marry anew. Is she simply cutting off her nose to spite her face, or is there another reason to explain her behavior?

We also know that in every divorce situation, there are two sides to the story, and we are hearing only one side. Nevertheless, awaiting further disclosure, we will deal with your provocative inquiry in the context of the facts you presented:

One issue is that your wife refuses to accept the get. This is almost a man-bites-dog-story, for the overwhelming majority of agunah cases are ones in which the husband is the recalcitrant: endlessly refusing his wife a get in order to block her chances for remarriage; or blackmailing her for financial and child custody concessions in return for a get. A case such as yours, however, of a women using her halachic power to refuse the get is quite rare though equally shameful.

A second issue it that she is running up your legal costs through her capricious behavior regarding visitation rights. You believe that someday in the future she will want to marry again and will come to you for a get. You are contemplating the possibility down the road of using your halachic leverage over a get to get your just due: Until she pays up for legal-fees-plus that you have unfairly incurred in trying to see your children, you will withhold the get. In essence, you want to bridge two separate, issues — get and visitation, and to your credit, you ask whether such action would be morally right.

We think the linkage is not good. It is neither moral nor ethical, no matter how wrong she is, no matter how sweet revenge might feel, no matter that she has monetarily damaged you. A get should be that which it was intended to be — consensual halachic closure to a failed marriage. It should not be a tool in the hands of one partner or another. Two wrongs do not make a right. And on a practical level, should you try to blackmail her when she finally comes calling for a get, your action may well backfire. Even though she has refused a Jewish divorce for such a long time, she can level a charge of me’agen (one who renders his wife an agunah, or “chained wife”) against you, and that stigma will stick to you longer than you think.

Having separated here get issues from visitation abuse, we turn to each of those matters separately. Her refusal of the get is intended to spite you. (There seems to be no other reason, for by not securing her own release through a get now, she cannot begin to create a new social life.) You have been wronged, and we believe that those who fight for women’s dignity must not slip into indifference when a man’s rights are violated. The obligation of the husband to secure the wife’s consent to the get was established by Rabbeinu Gershom, who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries. He instituted this measure to ensure that women not be forcibly divorced, not be put aside against their will. Her voluntary consent to divorce had to be won. Any woman who takes a legal mechanism intended to protect her and turns it into a tool to exploit or extort her husband should feel the censure of the community, just as we call for community sanctions against a recalcitrant man.

As mentioned above, cases of female recalcitrance such as yours are rare, but cases of male recalcitrance are not. The agunah problem exists in every community. Why is there such a stark statistical difference between male and female recalcitrance? Are women categorically nicer and less mean-spirited in a hostile divorce? Of course not! The answer lies in the protection Jewish law affords a husband from a recalcitrant wife in a heter meah rabbanim, a document signed by 100 rabbis that gives halachic release to a husband to take a new wife in the event that his previous wife declines or is unable to accept a get.

You mention that you have “a dispensation,” and we presume this to be a heter meah rabbanim that enables you to go forward with your social life. There is debate in the agunah activist community as to whether the heter should be allowed altogether. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, felt its use should be very limited, to prevent abuse.) The two of us differ on the matter, with Yitz positing that the heter be disallowed until such time as a similar loophole to free a woman from the clutches of a recalcitrant husband exists. Blu believes that each case must be decided individually, that a husband victimized by a recalcitrant wife should not be punished for a fault in Jewish divorce law that gives men leverage over get. But we do share the view that the Orthodox rabbinic leadership of this generation has failed its responsibility — to the class of women, to the community and to the ethics of halacha. In their inaction in not eliminating the actual and potential mischief by a me’agen, the rabbis are party to morally compromised behavior and to the chilul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name, that agunah stories entail.

Finally, regarding legal costs generated by your ex-wife’s wrongful behavior in visitation rights: We believe you have a legitimate claim against her. Lawsuits — especially for damages — tend to be counter-productive and equally likely to derail a settlement, but it seems as if you are way past congenial discussion for settling these issues. Thus, as you have no other recourse, you should sue for these damages in civil court. You should do this long before she comes to you for a get, not only to recover your losses but to remove from her hand the barriers she erects to visiting your children. You may have to compromise on damages, but if the suit compels her to comply with fair visitation rights, you will have won something more valuable.

Everyone knows that a divorce can bring out the worst stuff in a human being. Men and women who are otherwise perfectly nice people succumb to their bitterness and exhibit the nastiest behavior. We hope that you will not try to punish and avenge but rather take the high ground. It will also serve you well with your children, and help you to move on and achieve future happiness.

Blu Greenberg was the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She is the author of “On Women & Judaism” and “How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household,” among other books. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the founding president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and served as the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. He is the author of “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” “Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World” and “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.”


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Comments
Jim Wed. Nov 21, 2007

I fully agree with your advice regarding the get, the ex-wife's refusal to accept the get, and especially not tying visitation and parenting of children to anything, including the granting/accepting of a get. However, there is something missing from the father's story -- a court order of custody (or in some states such as mine, a parenting plan). It is my understanding (although I could be wrong) that every civil divorce that involves children in this country must include an order of custody (with or without visitation by the non-custodial parent) or a parenting plan (defining the residential schedule of the children with joint-custody parents). If a civil divorce has been granted, then one of those two documents has been filded as an order of the court. If the mother has full, 100% custody of the children, and the father is denied any custody or visitation, there is a reason for that, and she is under no obligation to provide ANY visitation by the father. The father can appeal that decision or try to get that decision changed, of course. However, if the court order includes visitation of or residential time with the children, than the mother is violating the court order by refusing access to the children within the terms of the order. In any case, it is not about fairness or reasonableness, it is about what the court has ordered, and if the mother and father of the children completed a civil divorce, there is an order. In the event that no civil divorce has been filed, fiing for divorce may be the best solution for the father. In any of these cases, consulting a family lawyer regarding his rights in this matter is highly recommended, of course.

Kevin Thu. Nov 22, 2007

To add to Jim's comment, it looks as if the Greenbergs misapprehended the legal situation. I doubt that a civil suit for damages is an option. As Jim says, normally there is a court order determining custody and visitation rights. It sounds as if the ex-husband has had to go to court numerous times to enforce the order against his ex-wife. Because violating a court order is technically a contempt of court, the judge can award attorney's fees to the party proving a violation, but judges are reluctant to do so, partly because they are reluctant to punish the violator (who has had to pay his or her own lawyer), particularly if the violator is the financially weaker party, and partly because it is likely to create a secondary squabble over the amount and reasonableness of the fees that the judge will have to resolve. American law does not normally consider attorney's fees an element of legal damages, so if the ex-husband was unable to win his attorney's fees from the divorce court, he probably has no other recourse. I doubt that this would have changed the Greenbergs' answer, but it does put the ex-husband in a better light.

original writer Fri. Nov 30, 2007

i am the one who sent in the original (since edited) letter. to answer the two commenters first -- there was no "parenting plan" , and enforcing my rights is extremely difficult in my county (short of imprisoning or fining my ex, which the court wont do, and imprisoning is not an option for for me, ethically). and, my ex-wife's family is the "deep pockets" in my situation. her lawyer took the strategy of "padding the bill" on both sides, which my ex is aware of, but doesnt mind. (actually, this is her lawyer's reputation.) regarding the rabbis greenbergs's suggestion, suing my ex for legal fees (i actually was told i have a great fraud/rico case against her lawyers; very simple, based on documents, no testimony needed, etc; but no lawyer will take it, cause ultimately, its a matrimonial case, after all, and the damages are nebulous, not monetary, and i'm ultimately suing the legal profession, so no lawyer will take it. even on a non contingency basis.) ditto suing her for my legal fees, as suggested by the rabbis greenbergs's. she has a right to a divorce, she has a legal right to pad her/my legal bills, and i have no alternative. so my original question stands unanswered by the rabbis greenbergs. (unless my ex agrees to have the matter decided by a rabbinical court, which she refuses. on lawyers advice.) the point of my letter actually was different -- i am dating now, and i find the young (and not so young, but thats another story) ladies i date are put off by my not having any sort of reasonable visitation. they dont want to date me further for this reason -- not because i had a messy divorce, but because its not really over, or if over, is incomplete, to phrase it more simply. this was my real question, and perhaps other commenters can / will answer? i do want to thank the rabbis greenberg for acknowleging that there are cases of "agunim", men who are denied "gittin" by their (ex)wives. few people know that can happen, though an alternative exists for them, the "heter meah rabbanim" mentioned, there are problems with it, so its not a good alternative in all cases.

norm Thu. Dec 27, 2007

I have a better Idea-If you don't want to put up with the midevil and illogical principals of haredism ignore them and do what you want whtehr you are a man or an aguna! Just don't whine! You picked your brand of Judaism.

Sharon Beth Long Thu. Nov 20, 2008

11/20/08 I realize that this letter is a year old but if I just read it maybe others might be just reading it as well. I have been a caseworker in child support enforcement for 10 years. I wonder if the reason that his ex wife (on her lawyer's advice!) is refusing to accept the get for the same reason that most me do, she wants or probably needs a better financial settlement. Most men have no ideas of the expenses involved in running a household especially a kosher household where the kids go to day school. Day school tuitions for each child (if it is the type of day school that can prepare kids for college) can run over $20000 a year per kid. Then, if she is working she will need day camp, $4000 per summer per kid and more if in sleep away camp, perhaps babysitting, probably around $75 per week in food expenses per kid, clothes, about $1000 per year per kid, transportation, family synagogue membership, probably around $2000 per year, and housing costs. If his exwife is paying most of the housing costs and/or mortgage, is it fair that the price of the sale of the house be divided equally as most divorce decrees require? If she is in a rental, were the increased rental costs for the necessarily larger home she needs because she has custody of the kids figure into the child support award? Then there is the question of college tuition, now $40000 per year per kid in a private college. Someone has to pay for it. Scholarship money is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. His exwife also has to prepare for her own retirement and may believe she has a 10% tzedakah obligation as well. Perhaps there are some other assets (such as an inheritance) that legally the exhusband is not required to divide but the exwife feels that she deserves a part of out of necessity for the financial security of herself and especially the children. It is not the responsiblity of her inlaws, no matter how wealthy they are, to support her or the children so that the exhusband can remarry and start a new life. The ex inlaws have the obligation to save for their own old age infirmities, such as nursing home costs, which are now over $400 per day, rather than go on Medicaid and become a burden on the state, if they can at all help it. The civil "guidelines" for child support say that a man should pay approx 15% of his income per child. It does not take into account the increased costs of the Orthodox Jewish household, especially tuition costs. Even for non Orthodox households in the northeastern metro areas of this country it is almost impossible to support two households and there may just not be enough money to go around, but the kids always should come first, even if the non custodial parent ends up sleeping on a sofa in his parents' apartment. I completely agree that it is unfair to withold visitation, unless there is more to the story than the exhusband is telling, but if he has a valid visitation order he can go with the sheriff (yes, sheriffs exist in New York City), to pick up the kids. Original writer may think this may be traumatic for the kids to do this but if the sheriff is discreet around the kids but makes it clear to his exwife that if she does not comply she will be arrested it should only be necessary to do this once to enforce visitation rights. Ex caseworker

Frances Fri. Jun 5, 2009

My husband ex wife was in charge of there son's trust,my husband left his son a home of which she sold without court approval,is there any way I can sue his ex wife and the title company for the wrongful sale of my family property that has been in my family for over 90 years? His ex wife failed to provide the title company court documents showing the property was in trust for my step son when he reached 27. She was then removed due to she breached her son's trust due to fiduciary duties as a constructive trustee, she was ordered to pay some damages, I then placed a lien against her for the damages, the remaining of the trust was placed with another family member, but she then had her attorney prepare a document releasing herself from this lien of $120,000, can she or her attorney do this? She is a professional, she has cost me excessive amount of legal expenses, is there anyway I can sue her for her constanct actions. Now she is suing me and requesting for sanctions for placing this lien against her homestead indicating I am harassing her and that I failed to notify her and her attorney of this lien. I am tired of her continued unprofessional behavior. Can I sue her to my legal expenses back due to her continued behavior?




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