December 9, 2019

When Divorce is a Mitzvah

By Layah Lipsker

Getting married under a chuppah is a beloved Jewish ritual, often paired with a festive hora. It is a mitzvah performed with much joy.  Sadly, some marriages will end in divorce. There is a mitzvah associated with divorce too, but less well known, and obviously not widely celebrated.  But maybe it should be. The ritual around Jewish divorce, the giving and receiving of a get, is a mitzvah that can bring spiritual closure and remind us of one of the sacred themes of Judaism, the gift of autonomous choice and personal freedom.

We tend to think of mitzvot as happy occasions or spiritual highs.  But the word mitzvah does not mean good deed, it means commandment. A mitzvah is an opportunity to infuse life’s mundane and important moments with transcendence.  A mitzvah is a reminder that spiritual intent and meaning can inform every part of our lives, in joyous times and in challenging times. According to Kabbalah, Judaism’s rituals around death and mourning help ease the transition of the soul to its next phase, and bring comfort to the mourners.  In the same way, the mitzvah of giving and receiving a get can bring comfort and help ease this painful time of transition. The words said during the get process can be healing, as they explicitly release the couple from the vows of marriage and pronounce them available to new relationships.

In my work as director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce, I have seen women, from every background and affiliation, face a recalcitrant spouse who uses the Get to inflict pain, retain control, or negotiate a better settlement.  For five years, we have advised hundreds of women; through accompaniment to the Boston Rabbinical Court, in person and by phone, and through questions posted anonymously on our support site, getyourget.com.

Unlike a long drawn out civil process, the get process is usually quick and can bring some measure of closure at a very challenging time. Sadly, many men and women are denied the opportunity to perform this mitzvah and move on with their lives.  Get abuse, a Jewish form of domestic violence, is often part of a pattern of abuse and control that begins soon after the wedding.

Since the Taskforce was formed, as a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, we have learned a lot about get abuse.  Contrary to the prevailing myth, get abuse is not only an Orthodox problem and women are not the only victims. Both men and women can suffer from Get abuse, although the consequences for women are much worse under Jewish law.  Get abuse is prevalent throughout our Jewish community, as either party may seek the spiritual closure a get can provide for various reasons.

But the most important thing we have learned is that couples often get bad advice about when to obtain a get.  Less religious couples tend to worry about the get only after their civil divorce is finalized. More religious couples are often told that they cannot begin their civil proceedings until after resolution in a Rabbinical court.  Both are mistaken. “GetReady” is a groundbreaking initiative of the Taskforce, encouraging couples to link the get to their civil divorce, by inserting a legal clause that helps ensure Get compliance.  The reason is simple. Rabbinical courts, outside of Israel, do not have the power to compel either party to participate in the Get process. Through legal education and public awareness, we hope to make this legal clause standard in every Jewish divorce.  In our experience, including language about the get at the beginning of a divorce negotiation, reduces the possibility of using it as a negotiating tool when tensions worsen.

Rebecca is one women who was helped through the Taskforce.  She was married for 11 years and has three beautiful boys. She suffered neglect and verbal abuse, beginning with her first pregnancy.  When she finally had the emotional and financial capacity to leave, her husband swore that he would never give her a Get, thus preventing her from ever remarrying under Jewish law.   Rebecca believed her community rabbis would find a way to free her, especially after she gave them evidence of serial affairs. Sadly, it’s been three years since the separation, and she is still an “agunah,” a woman chained to a marriage that is over while she is unable to move forward with her life.  When we met Rebecca, she had seen many rabbis, but had not filed for divorce or contacted a lawyer. We advised her to file and to include the GetReady clause. For the first time, Rebecca sees a path to a new life, and her husband has agreed in writing to giving the Get.

Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah, and our Jewish community needs to help ensure that this spiritual closure is available to every man and woman who wants it.  On March 20th, we will mark International Agunah Day. It’s time to end get abuse and make the GetReady clause standard for every divorcing Jewish couple. If you know of someone thinking about divorce, please point them to our website, getyourget.com, for more information on GetReady, or to ask a question to one of our get consultants.

Layah Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force, a project of HBI.

GetReady: A New Solution for Agunot

By Layah Kranz Lipsker

At 1:30 a.m. a few days ago, my neighbor, a single mother of four, was finally granted a get and is now able to move on with her life. For three years she was an agunah, a woman “chained” to a marriage that is over. She was a victim of get abuse, the deliberate withholding of a Jewish divorce. As the director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI), I have worked with both men and women who are victims of this unique form of domestic abuse. To be able to say “mazel tov” to my neighbor was truly gratifying.

The day before Purim, which marks the fast of Esther, has been designated as National Agunah Day. Get abuse affects women from every affiliation and background, as women seek a Jewish divorce for both personal and religious reasons. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, one cannot remarry without a get. Withholding a get is a violation of Jewish law, but while a rabbinic court can issue a summons to a recalcitrant spouse, it has little power to enforce its rulings. We have seen the devastating effects of get abuse on women and children in the Boston area and throughout the Jewish world. Secular courts, in past divorce hearings, have deemed get abuse a controlling behavior.

On our educational website, getyourget.com, we receive and respond to questions about Jewish divorce. This was a recent question that came our way:

“My x-husband left me with over $500,000 in unpaid income taxes which I did not know about. He left the country and lives in Israel. I was left with the children and had to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. We were granted a civil divorce in 2009. Now he wants me to pay him $25,000 for him to give me a get. What can I do? I want to be re-married in a Jewish ceremony. Where can I turn?”

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a Taskforce member and rabbinical judge at the Boston Rabbinical Court, was able to respond within 24 hours and offer support, education, and tailored advice. The feedback we receive from the women we help online, those we help in person at the Boston Rabbinical Court, and others around the country inspires us to continue to work on behalf of both men and women who are suffering from get abuse.

The Agunah Taskforce at the HBI has contributed much to the conversation around Get abuse and solutions that can work. In addition to research and scholarship on the issue, the Taskforce hosted “A Case Study Conference on Solutions to the Agunah Problem” in May, 2017 to bring together lawyers, rabbis, scholars and activists to work through proposed remedies from a civil and halakhic perspective. One result is the launch of a new solution, GetReady, which can help couples avoid get abuse by adding a clause to their civil divorce agreements requiring get compliance. The draft language we are recommending was created by our advisory team of legal scholars, lawyers, and rabbis and we have seen it work in several cases in the Boston area. Within the Orthodox community, the most comprehensive solution thus far is the halachic prenup requiring get compliance, which is effective if signed before the marriage. However, the vast majority of Jewish couples do not sign it.

The Taskforce is also working with the Muslim community. The withholding of a religious divorce affects both Muslim and Jewish women. Working with religious leaders and lawyers in the Muslim community, the Taskforce will be making recommendations to State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), on legislative action to help assure women the right to a religious divorce in Massachusetts.

As we mark International Agunah Day, the day before Purim, we are reminded of the power of individuals to stand up for the values they believe in and to fight injustice. Queen Vashti and Queen Esther were feminists before such a word existed, refusing to be content with roles that diminished their light. Jewish women suffering from get abuse need our support, and our community needs to work together until better solutions are found.

If you know of someone considering divorce, please encourage them to visit getyourget.com and to ask a question or learn more about GetReady. The ability to begin again and create a life of meaning is a central tenet of a spiritual life. A get can be a healing form of closure and it should never be denied.

 

Layah Kranz Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force at HBI.

The Boston Agunah Task force is generously funded by the Miriam Fund of CJP.

What Do Rabbas Mean to Me?

By Rachel Putterman

rachel_puttermanWhy am I, a non-Orthodox female rabbinical student, brought to tears at the recent images of Modern Orthodox women being ordained as rabbis in both Israel and the U.S?  Why does this historic shift resonate so deeply with me, given that the liberal movements have been ordaining women for decades?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that I have been advocating on behalf of women for most of my life, first, as a public interest attorney, and now as a rabbinical student.  Thus, on a basic level, I am incredibly moved by the fact that real concrete change is happening, and at such a rapid pace that it appears to constitute a paradigm shift.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that two cohorts of Orthodox women–one in Israel and one in the U.S.–would be granted semikha in 2015.  Indeed, at the JOFA Un-Conference held a mere nine months ago, in response to participants’ urgent questions regarding when women would be ordained as rabbis, a prominent male leader of the Modern Orthodox establishment said that the structure of rabbinic leadership would look very different within one to two generations. The ground is literally shifting beneath our feet!

Another part of the answer has to do with me being a decidedly non-Orthodox rabbinical student.  Despite my utter freedom to pursue the rabbinate, and the multiple options I had regarding where to receive rabbinic training, I was never able to shake an awareness that the path that I was pursuing was essentially off limits to women within an entire branch of Judaism.   And, I experienced that exclusion of women as a type of Jewish glass ceiling. I felt stigmatized by the fact that being a female rabbinical student automatically signaled that I was not Orthodox.  [For purposes of this discussion, I am putting aside the issue that all non-Orthodox rabbis are not considered valid rabbis by most Orthodox].  Whereas a male non-Orthodox rabbinical student could “pass” as Orthodox, so long as he dressed appropriately, the minute I said I was a rabbinical student, it was a given that I was not Orthodox.  I find it extremely liberating that with the ordination of Orthodox women that is no longer the case.  I am elated that my Modern Orthodox sisters have gained the right to become rabbis if that is their hearts’ desire, albeit with much more risk attached to their endeavors than to mine.  These women and the men who are supporting them are truly heroic, given the extreme censure and backlash that they face from the ultra-Orthodox.  They are the trailblazers, while I am the beneficiary of courageous women who preceded me.

I have met or corresponded with two of the newly-ordained female Orthodox rabbis and they have been so happy to connect with me that I’ve realized that we have more in common than I originally thought.  I met both of these women in the context of working towards solutions to the plight of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce).  Perhaps it was our shared journey, combined with our mutual goal of helping agunot that overrode our denominational differences.  And this is yet the last reason why I’m moved to tears. The nascent expansion of the tent of Jewish women clergy has the potential to lessen the painfully entrenched division between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which will in turn lead to the further empowerment of all Jewish women.

Rachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence at HBI and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

Let Your Wife Go!

By Rachel Putterman

For those who follow the cycle of the Jewish year, we’re about to wrap up the interim period between the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt that we commemorated at the Passover seder, and the paradigmatic moment of revelation at Mount Sinai that we will soon celebrate at Shavuot.  As we metaphorically complete our wandering in the desert and prepare to accept God’s law as a free people, it is worth taking a look at modern issues of slavery particularly within the Jewish world. In so doing, it’s hard not to be struck by the resiliency of the agunah issue. Despite years of activism on behalf of agunot, the issue remains a Gordian knot in our midst. Yet a recent civil court decision from the far-flung reaches of Australia signals that the perception of get refusal as domestic abuse is becoming axiomatic. Perhaps most inspiring, the decision demonstrates how civil courts and Beit Dins (Jewish religious courts) can work together to free women from dead marriages.

Under Jewish law, a man must voluntarily give a woman a Jewish divorce, and the woman must voluntarily accept it. The woman is the passive recipient of the man’s act of divorcing her, an act that the Beit Din merely facilitates. This is in stark contrast to U.S. civil law, where either party may initiate a divorce case, and it is the court that issues the final divorce judgment. Traditionally, an agunah was a woman whose husband was unable to give her a divorce either because he had disappeared or didn’t have the requisite mental or physical capacity. In the last 50 years or so, the term agunah has shifted to refer primarily to the situation where a man refuses to give his wife a get, despite being capable of doing so. Sometimes the husband simply doesn’t want his wife to be free to remarry, and other times he uses the threat of get refusal as a means of extorting concessions on other issues connected to the divorce case such as financial support, division of property or access to the children. In either situation, men are leveraging the power differential inherent in Jewish divorce to their advantage. Moreover, as was successfully argued in the Australian case, get refusal often is a continuation of a pattern of domestic abuse that has gone on throughout the marriage.

In response to the tireless activism on behalf of agunot, there have been some recent legal developments that bode well, of which the Australian case is but the latest. Following an Agunot Summit convened in New York in the summer of 2013, Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg announced the formation of a new International Beit Din whose raison d’etre is the resolution of complicated get refusal cases. Another novel solution that has been gaining traction throughout the U.S. is the signing of the halachic prenuptial agreement, whereby the husband agrees that in the event of separation, he will pay his wife a certain amount for every day that he refuses to give her a get. In the wake of these high profile legal remedies within the U.S., the landmark decision from Australia shows that Jewish communities around the world are making strides in the struggle to free agunot.

Earlier this year, in a case involving a woman’s request for an extension of an order of protection, an Australian magistrate held that get refusal per se constitutes family violence as articulated by the applicable family law regulation. The woman seeking the order of protection had already been civilly divorced from her husband yet he was refusing to give her a get unless she paid him $200,000. The woman’s attorney argued that the order of protection should be granted at least in part due to the man’s refusal to give his wife a get. She crafted this argument in consultation with the Melbourne Beit Din to ensure the validity of any get her client would eventually receive. The Magistrate granted the extension of the order of protection, and explicitly found that the man’s “refusal to finally release her from a violent marriage [was] the ultimate exercise of dominance and control.” Acknowledging the synergy between civil and religious authorities in this case, the head rabbi on the Melbourne Beit Din welcomed the decision and stated: “[t]his precedent would allow us another method of using the civil court system to help provide a gett [sic] from a recalcitrant husband.”

Not only does this Australian case provide the first legal finding that get refusal constitutes domestic abuse, it also exemplifies the effectiveness of religious and civil courts working together to send the message that get refusal is a violation of law that will not be sanctioned. In other words, all authorities agree that women should not continue to be enslaved in marriages that they want to be free of, and hence it’s time for all recalcitrant husbands to heed the call: Let Your Wife Go!

rachel_puttermanRachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

 

Let’s Talk About Israel’s Blacklist

By Susan Weiss

It’s time to talk about Israel’s blacklist. This state sanctioned registry of “untouchables” — the last public accounting of it in 2004 lists 5,305 Israelis — is a motley crew who fall under three general categorizations:

  1. People who can’t marry any type of Jew (2,835)
  2. “Unkosher” Jews who can’t marry “kosher Jews” but can marry other “unkosher Jews” or converts (235)
  3. “Kosher Jews” with issues that limit who they can marry (2,235)

Included in the first group are: Gentiles; those suspected of being Gentiles; “lapsed” converts whose conversions were repealed because of conduct deemed “wayward” by Israeli state rabbis, and the children of those lapsed converts. In the second category of “unkosher Jews” are mamzerim and suspected mamzerim — children born of their mother’s adulterous relationships, or of their incestuous relationships, even if coerced. These include children born of “consanguineous” incestuous relations (among blood relatives) like a father and daughter, as well as “affinal” incestuous relations (non-blood relatives) like a woman with her sister’s ex-husband, or a widow with her brother-in-law if she had had children with her husband. In the third category of “kosher Jews” whose options are limited are, among others: Cohanim or priests who live with divorcees or converts and whose daughters are not permitted to marry other priests; divorced couples who slept together after divorce and need to redo the get ceremony if they want to marry other people; as well as women suspected of adultery who are barred from marrying their ex-husbands or lovers.

All of the above kinship rules are based on ancient, Biblical and rabbinic laws and have been incorporated into the operative, family law of the land in the State of Israel by way of the Rabbinic Court Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law of 1953. In 1976, then Attorney General, and later Chief Justice, Aaron Barak, approved the blacklist, implicitly and prospectively expanding the rabbinic court’s jurisdiction in a matter on which law was silent. In 2003, Barak’s opinion was reviewed by the new Attorney General and re-confirmed.

On the (liberal) face of things, it’s pretty bad. Ancient laws infringe on Israeli citizens’ rights to marriage, freedom of conscience, and privacy. But when you watch it operate up close, which has been my professional lot as the director of the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) where we represent people on the list and others, the picture gets even more daunting. It is more than just the state offering up a few unfortunate souls for the sake of the Jewish polity. It’s about how state secular actors like the Attorney General’s Office, the Justice Department, and the Israeli Supreme Court sacrifice, again and again, the democratic heart of the Jewish State, allowing state actors with the violent power of the state behind them to aggressively enter into our bedrooms, kitchens, and the private recesses of our consciences.

Take for example “Miriam”, a recent CWJ client who “found” herself on the blacklist after she was divorced from her husband. When the get was being arranged, her soon-to-be ex-husband told the rabbis that he suspected that she had had an affair with “Yossi”. That suspicion was enough for the presiding rabbi to put “Miriam” on the blacklist. Though she did not want to marry “Yossi”, “Miriam” wanted her name off the (offensive) list. CWJ petitioned the rabbinic court to remove her name. We claimed both that the procedure by which “Miriam” had “found” herself on the list had been flawed and that the court had no jurisdiction at all to put her on the list in the first place. Since “Miriam” had gotten divorced by agreement (i.e. the divorce was not contested), we argued, the issue of whether she had, or had not, slept with “Yossi” during her marriage was not relevant to the divorce proceeding and hence not within the parameters of the Rabbinic Court Jurisdiction Law. The District Rabbinic Court disagreed but was willing to conduct a retrial on the matter. Our client did not want to undergo such a demeaning trial— where her sex life would be discussed— and we appealed the decision to the High Rabbinic Court on both procedural and substantive grounds. When we lost, we appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Asher Grunis, was not sympathetic. The Court wasn’t willing to help out “Miriam” since she had refused to undergo a retrial. And it also wasn’t willing to accept our principled claim that the rabbinic court had no jurisdiction at all to conduct sex trials in uncontested divorced proceedings, rejecting our request that it examine the Jurisdiction Law with “strict scrutiny.” Instead, the Court deferred to the opinion of the Justice Department attorney appointed to represent the State against us on the matter. That attorney, in response to our substantive jurisdictional claim, referred the Court back to Barak’s 1976 opinion with regard to the blacklist. As for our procedural claim, the Court sent me to the negotiating table to draft regulations with the government attorneys to make sure that blacklisting and sex trials would meet the standards of fair trial and due process. I used the time, unsuccessfully, to try to convince the public servants that they should be working to protect my and my clients’ human rights, not the state’s interest. They used the time, unsuccessfully, to try to get me to lend my hand to the regulations. About 10 days ago, after the Chief Rabbi approved of the draft regulations, the Supreme Court threw out our case, leaving us a somewhat ambiguous opening to challenge the newly minted regulations with another concrete case.

Bottom line: “Miriam” is still blacklisted. We have official regulations authorizing sex trials drafted by the Justice Department and more or less ok’d by the Supreme Court. Ex-husbands are dragging their ex-wives to state rabbinic courts if they apply to marry persons that their ex-husbands suspect that they had slept with during their marriage. Rabbinic courts are hearing these cases and women, sometimes years after their divorce, are bearing the burden of disproving their, often vindictive, ex-husband’s suspicions.

Everything is wrong with this picture. It is a picture of a theocracy gone wild, financed with tax-payer money, regulated and bureaucratized, and supported by a shortsighted, unimaginative, and unfocused secular democratic arm of the state. Max Weber, Ben Gurion, John Stuart Mill, Ahad Ha’am, God Himself, and many others are all rolling over in their graves. This is not what a Jewish State should look like. And it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time for both Israelis and those interested in Israel’s future to call on the Israeli government to set up a civil rights division in the Justice Department.

susanweiss_smSusan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center of Women’s Justice in Jerusalem and is the Estanne Fawer scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. This blog first appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of The Forward.

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