April 3, 2020

Agunot Turn to Civil Courts for Remedies

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

A recent case in England relies on a new legal strategy, using laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence to address the agunah problem and shows promise in bringing the law of the state to bear on behalf of women.

Today, International Agunah Day(#gettfreedom)  and the Fast of Esther, is a time for the community to reflect and act in solidarity with women placed in legal and social limbo by Jewish laws of divorce.

An agunah (literally, a chained woman) is chained to a dead marriage by the whim of her husband.  Jewish law places sole discretion to grant a divorce (a get) in the hands of the husband and provides few effective remedies should he choose not to do so.  As Jewish law has been slow to find remedies that help agunot, many are turning creatively to the civil courts.

A husband might withhold a divorce out of spite, a desire to manipulate and control his wife or as a bargaining tactic in negotiations over financial or custody matters. A woman who has not divorced Jewishly cannot remarry under Jewish law and any children she might have with a new partner would have the status of “mamzer”, subject to ostracism and themselves unable to marry in the Jewish community.

Because Jewish legal authorities have lacked the will to provide halakhic remedies for this imbalance of power under Jewish family law, women have turned to the civil courts for help.  New York State, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa have all passed “get laws” that allow a civil court to attach financial consequences to failure to cooperate in a religious divorce.  France, Canada and the civil courts in Israel allow women to sue for damages for breach of contract or for negligent infliction of emotional harm.

Advocates for women subjected to domestic abuse describe this conduct as rooted in a desire to exercise power and control over the wife.  Advocates for agunot have come to see get refusal through this lens, describing it as a distinctly Jewish form of domestic violence. Strategies developed to assist victims of domestic violence can be deployed to help agunot.

In a case begun in January, 2020, a British agunah invoked a  2015 law passed by Parliament that recognizes that domestic violence involves more than physical abuse.  The law makes controlling or coercive behavior towards a spouse or intimate partner a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison.  The law defines this behavior to include:

 “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and /or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior.”

In this new agunah case, the parties (whose identities have not been disclosed) had married in Israel before moving to the United Kingdom. They soon separated and had been living apart for five years.  While they had been divorced in the English courts, the husband told the wife that he would only grant her a religious divorce if she cooperated in revoking a non-molestation order put in place by the English court to protect her and if she then left the country.  She argued that this refusal to release her from their Jewish marriage met the threshold test of causing her “serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect” on her life. Her counsel told journalists:

“The defendant was well aware that by refusing to provide a get, the victim would be isolated, prevented from forming a future relationship or having children, and unable to lead an Orthodox Jewish life in the community of her choice”.

The wife initially asked the Crown Prosecution service to lay charges against her husband for engaging in coercive and controlling behavior in violation of the law.  The state declined to bring this novel case. However, with the support of the domestic violence advocacy group, Jewish Women’s Aid, and case support staff at the London Beit Din, she hired counsel and brought a private prosecution case against him.  Facing criminal charges, the husband delivered the get on the courthouse steps and the criminal case was withdrawn.

It is unfortunate that Jewish women must turn to the civil courts for leverage to address the gender imbalance under Jewish family law.  But unless and until Jewish law offers effective remedies that allow women to secure their freedom, innovative approaches such as this will have to do.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a co-founder of the Boston Agunah Task Force, devoted to advice, education and support for women going through the Jewish divorce process.  


Graceful Masculinity

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Rachel Timoner

The phrase “toxic masculinity,” in the news and culture a great deal these days, is often misunderstood. Rather than indicate that masculinity is inherently toxic or harmful, the phrase “toxic masculinity” points to an overly narrow and repressive definition of manhood, by which boys and men are taught that the only way to be “a real man” is through violence, sex, status, and aggression. Toxic masculinity can be implicated in everything from school shootings to sexual harassment to mansplaining. But what does healthy masculinity look like? What can we learn from Torah about a more expansive and robust definition of manhood and about how to heal the toxic forms of masculinity?  

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we are taught about the Sotah: a woman whose jealous husband suspects her of being unfaithful. It is clear from the design of the ritual that the problem being addressed is not an actual question of infidelity by the woman but dangerous possessiveness and entitlement by the man. Here we see the Torah acknowledge the very real and universal emotion of jealousy, understanding that in a society in which a man’s honor and status is dependent upon being able to control his wife, such jealousy could be dangerous, even deadly.

The Torah provides a remedy for the man’s excessive bitterness and entitlement: the woman is brought before the high priest and must drink a mixture of bitter water and humble earth with G-d’s name dissolved into the mixture. G-d is willing to have G-d’s holy name erased in order to protect the life and safety of a woman, to heal the wounded heart and pride of a man, and to make room for peace.

The parsha immediately proceeds to teach us about the Nazir, a man who temporarily steps back from society and adopts an ascetic posture of separation. The Talmud explains the juxtapositioning of the Sotah and the Nazir as divine advice for men who witness the disgrace of a Sotah. In order to break the cycle of excessive possessiveness and entitlement, a male witness to the Sotah ritual should accept upon himself a period of excessive self-denial and restraint. It is as if he must swing from one extreme to another as a corrective in order to eventually find a middle path.

It is noteworthy that this chapter ends with that middle path, a three-part paternal blessing and message for Aaron and his sons. This is also the blessing that is traditionally offered from parents to their children every Shabbat. The three verse blessing starts with a request for protection/guardianship and concludes with an ask of peace. What sticks out is the middle verse that reads: “May Hashem illuminate G-d’s countenance toward you and endow you with grace/חן.”

We find an interesting connection between grace and masculinity in early mystical sources. Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, says that G-d made the letter “ת” “Tav” king over grace and it corresponds to the day of Shabbat. It has been observed that when you insert the “tav” in the middle of “grace” you form the word “Chasson – חתן”, the Hebrew term for groom.

Our rabbis teach that the essence of grace comes from the Shabbat, in that after man’s sin of crossing a boundary in the garden of Eden (where despite being able to eat from all of the other trees, being told “no” to just one thing was too much), the Shabbat was a time to pause in an atmosphere of G-d’s total acceptance and love, an atmosphere that enabled him to reflect and change. R’ Tzodok writes that the blessing of Genesis 2:3 “And G-d blessed the seventh day” was the blessing of חן/grace.

The gift of Shabbat is the gift of G-d’s grace, in which we experience acceptance of and gratitude for the world as it is; in which we have no need to control, possess, or dominate; in which we feel loved and “good enough” just as we are. The Talmud teaches us that we are meant to learn from the way in which G-d models for us the proper way to act. G-d’s behavior is in contrast to the jealous husband in the ritual of the Sotah. Although G-d created us, G-d does not act as if G-d owns us. In fact, G-d values above all our free will and ability to make choices. A groom, if behaving like G-d, will deeply honor the free will of his spouse and feel an aspiration to be worthy of such a partner. Filled with חן/grace, he will feel accepted and loved for who he is, and ready to accept and love his partner.

G-d, the source of all genders, has many male attributes and is also the source of all good. The humility and respect that G-d has for the space that we take up in this world, despite the actual power differential that exists between the Creator and Their creations, provides an important template for our interpersonal interactions where the power differences are only a social construction. May we all find the illumination necessary to create a society where all gender expressions are reflections of the Divine, and all are filled with grace.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence inTrans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)




Rabbi Rachel Timoner is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where she focuses on community building, spiritual life, and activism to make the world more just. (Pronouns: She/Her)

Fighting the Same Fights as Our Feminist Mothers

Some thoughts on sexual harassment and academic careers

By Gila Silverman

When the news broke that a well-known male scholar had been sexually harassing – and sometimes assaulting – female colleagues for decades, I was in the midst of cleaning out my mother’s home office. I was packing up her books on Jewish feminism, women in academia, and feminist pedagogy; sorting her notes from conferences and work groups on women’s connected ways of knowing, gender and moral development, and widowhood and social roles. She had often talked about how hard it was, especially in the early years of her career, to be taken seriously as a woman with a Ph.D. She had many stories about the men who ignored her ideas at meetings, and later promoted these same ideas, claiming them as their own. In the early 1970’s, she was invited to speak to a group of funeral directors in another state, who were interested in learning more about her research with widows. They later sent a letter to my father, thanking him for “allowing” her to be away from home. In her papers, I found a photo of her with a group of colleagues, sitting around a conference table. She is the only woman, and she is speaking, but most of the men are looking in other directions.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in reading the op-eds, emails, Facebook posts, and listserv discussions about harassment and gender and power in the Jewish and academic communities. I’ve been outraged, sad, confused, and physically nauseous, as we’ve learned – yet again and in such detail – about the multitude of ways in which women’s bodies, experiences, ideas, and careers have been undervalued, abused, dismissed, and belittled.

My own experience with this happened few years ago, as I was finishing my Ph.D and trying to figure out how to position myself professionally and intellectually. I scheduled a series of networking meetings with colleagues and thought leaders in my field. A colleague I had only met once or twice took the time for a long conversation, that was helpful and encouraging, full of praise for my work and my political bravery, but then veered sideways into sexual innuendo and offhand comments about extramarital affairs, went back to professional brainstorming and possible jobs and projects, and ended with a hug that was too close and too long for someone I barely knew.

I was grateful for his help, but uncomfortable. I knew that if I described our meeting, many people would have told me that I was misinterpreting ordinary behavior. Later, when I mentioned to friends that I had met with him, they confirmed my discomfort, telling me that he had a reputation for being “creepy” to women, and for verbally bullying female colleagues in public forums.

I never really followed up on our conversation, and I didn’t pursue the possible collaboration he had mentioned, though it seemed exciting and might have opened professional doors. I didn’t want to work with someone who made me uncomfortable and who had a reputation for treating women as something other than intellectual equals. I moved on.

Careers are built on a combination of skill and talent, education and opportunity, luck and determination, creativity and collaboration; they are not made or broken with a single conversation. But the Pandora’s box that was opened recently made me think about what might have happened if that day had gone differently. If I had felt more comfortable with him, would I have chosen to pursue the research projects he had suggested? Would I have made useful connections, had the opportunity to publish in higher-profile journals, been part of conversations I would have liked to be part of? And just as importantly, would I have had something interesting to contribute to those conversations, brought ideas and perspectives that weren’t otherwise represented?

I find myself wondering, how many women’s ideas have we lost to situations like these? What intellectual contributions have we missed because women’s insights were ignored or silenced or co-opted? What community-changing policies were never pursued because women walked away from professional situations that were uncomfortable or unsafe?

Building an academic career is challenging these days. The corporatization of the university, a political climate that under-values (and un-funds) education and research, and the rise in contingent positions have all been well documented. For many of us, there are the added issues of resume gaps that come from caregiving, and the constraints caused by complicated family situations. Now we can also publicly acknowledge what many of us knew in private, that there was another issue influencing our professional decisions. For far too many women, our complex professional calculations and negotiations had to include whether we felt safe with our colleagues, and how much sexual innuendo or unwanted physical contact was a deal-breaker. This is simply unacceptable. It has to change.

I am now back in my own home, unpacking my mother’s books and papers and adding them to my own library. As I’m putting away 30 years of books by and about Jewish women, I am struck by how much has changed for women since the 1970’s and how much has stayed the same. I keep coming back to Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff’s recent op-ed, Where are All the Women in Jewish Studies, in the Forward, detailing the glaring exclusion of women from high-profile scholarship in Jewish Studies. I have been thinking about Rachel Kadish’s beautiful recent novel, The Weight of Ink, and the lengths her fictional 17th century female scribe must go to in order to pursue a life of the mind; I find myself questioning if we are really so different from her. I am grateful to the women who are now speaking truth to power, after silently carrying these stories for years. And I am pondering all of the complicated ways in which gender has affected my own professional trajectory.

For now, I can’t quite connect the dots between all of these things. I can only sit with my sadness and my anger andmy frustration. I can only hope that, because of the actions of so many brave women and good men, things will someday be different.

Gila Silverman, a 2017 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is a research associate at The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, and a visiting scholar at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.


Pledging Safety in High Schools Regardless of Sexuality and Gender: The Eshel Pledge

By Lily Fisher Gomberg

Lauren Grobois loved her experience at SAR High School. She loved her teachers and the curriculum, and got along with her classmates well. So on June 12, 2018 when she shared a video testimony imploring SAR High School (among other Modern Orthodox high schools) to take the Eshel Pledge, “It wasn’t me against SAR, it was more me talking to an organization that I know listens to people and also is very caring,” said Grobois, SAR High School, Riverdale, NY class of 2014 and Brandeis University, class of 2019.

The Eshel Pledge is an explicit promise to LGBT+ students that there will be no expulsion, bullying, or reparative therapy, and full inclusion, support, and open admission at Modern Orthodox high schools. Grobois said that her motivation for sharing the pledge on social media was partly to bring attention to the pledge at SAR, but also because “I wanted queer people on my Facebook feed to see that I stand with them, and I stand with this Eshel Pledge, which is important because a lot of times queer students don’t necessarily feel like they can come out in Modern Orthodox spaces, because, even though most of their friends and most of the people around them are so welcoming and so okay with them coming out, nobody really voices that opinion.” Grobois says that she didn’t know anyone who was out of the closet in high school, but she does know of past classmates who have come out since. She also notes that since she graduated, “other students have come out, and the administration has been really great to my knowledge. In general, they’re really welcoming and I think that they understand the situation, but they have not taken this pledge… it’s important that they do.”

The pledge is now being promoted by Eshel, an LGBT+ Jewish advocacy group, but it was not directly developed by Eshel but by Micha Thau, class of 2017 at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, CA. Thau wrote in his 2016 article in Jewish Journal that he waited two years in “anxious fear” to come out of the closet at Shalhevet. When he did come out, his experience was much like that which Grobois described, his school and classmates were more accepting than he had expected. After a summer fellowship with Eshel, he decided to sit down with  Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal to create a pledge that would let LGBT+ students know that Shalhevet would accept them. Rabbi Segal even wrote a public article about inclusion of LGBT+ folks in Orthodox schools.

Shalhevet ’07 alum and Brandeis doctoral candidate Benjamin Steiner noted that “it’s probably a bold move for them [Rabbi Segal], and I applaud it.” The pledge was adopted 10 years after Steiner’s graduation from Shalhevet, but he believes that it’s emblematic of Shalhevet’s inclusivity and openness to hearing students opinions. When asked why he believed the pledge wasn’t created sooner, he said that the timing wasn’t right in 2007, “it’s sad that they didn’t have it till now, but I wouldn’t fault them for it.”

The pledge was met with enthusiasm at Shalhevet, and Eshel has decided to take it national. An Eshel representative said that the pledge is timely because “in the past two years, acceptance in the Orthodox community has grown, and schools’ policies don’t necessarily reflect that… this is authentic to orthodoxy. The alumni really believe in this, and we’re just organizing it. The students want this.” Now, Eshel is calling on students, alumni, and parents who have connections to Modern Orthodox high schools to create video testimony and ask their school to take the Pledge. Actually taking the pledge is an end goal, but the immediate goal of these videos is to create dialogue about inclusion and LGBT+ issues in the Orthodox community.     

One current Brandeis student who prefers not to be named recalls that at their Modern Orthodox high school “there was one basically one queer student, and [there were rumors that] they were asked to leave the school if they were going to be out.” They cite this perceived lack of acceptance as a reason why they personally stopped identifying with Orthodoxy. This alum is glad that the pledge is gaining momentum now, and hopes that many schools will adopt it. They are not surprised, however, at the timing in which the pledge is gaining momentum because LGBT+ issues have been “picking up momentum outside the Orthodox community for a long time, [and the pledge is] pretty much in line with how we’re progressing in queer issues… [but] Orthodoxy is always last”

The Orthodox Union didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this issue, but they did publish a statement two years ago when gay marriage was legalized in the United States. The statement is expressly anti-gay marriage, saying that marriage is defined in Judaism as a “relationship between a man and a woman,” but also “that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.” The statement also expresses strong feelings that the civil liberties of gay marriage should not infringe on the religious liberties of any group which cannot or will not support gay marriage. In the context of the Eshel Pledge, this seems to fit in. The pledge does not ask schools to perform marriages, only to include, support, and protect their LGBT+ students. For Steiner, the most important part of the pledge is the promise of no bullying in the face of “gay expression,” and he says “I would think that even the OU would not want bullying.” Additionally, an Eshel representative pointed out that “the pledge was crafted very carefully to avoid halachic issues” and “what we’re asking is for them to say that a child expressing their identity is not a reason to be bullied or to have to leave the school.”

When asked about the future of the pledge, Grobois pointed out that “most of who this pledge is trying to improve is institutions that are basically there, and just need a bit of a push… the schools that aren’t going to accept it aren’t even the target.”

At this time, Shalhevet High School is the only school to have taken the pledge. Eshel says that there are “several schools interested in the pledge, but none have committed.” If you have a connection with an Orthodox high school, and you would like to sign the petition or make a video in support of the Eshel Pledge, please visit http://www.eshelonline.org/pledge/.

Lily Fisher Gomberg is the summer blogger for Fresh Ideas. She is a rising junior at Brandeis University.

Lehavdil? Distinctiveness and Fluidity in Personal Status Change

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

One of my favorite aspects of Jewish tradition is its recognition of diverse experience. Judaism differentiates between Sabbath and weekday—lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol, and even between Sabbath and holiday levels of holiness—lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. Judaism also differentiates between different kinds of personal status—single, married, engaged, etc.

Sylvia Barack Fishman

Jews, like other societal groups, create memorable ceremonies to mark an individual’s passage from one kind of personal status to another—circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs, mikvah immersions, weddings, divorces, mourning rituals.

Human beings do seem to benefit from ceremonies demarcating personal status. Ceremonies ratify profound transitions, whether joyous or sorrowful.  Where such a ceremony does not exist—for example the lack of a Jewish ceremony to celebrate the birth of a child—many complain about its absence.

But there is a downside to personal status categories and demarcation ceremonies. Personal experience may be much more fluid and less defined than the lehavdil categories imply.

Gendered traditions that separate men’s and women’s status in traditional Judaism, for example, have become more fluid in recent decades. Jews studying sacred texts—once a gendered role confined almost exclusively to males—now include girls and woman as well. Jewish communal and religious leadership and public prayer include females in many congregations. In these and other instances, the fluidity of the human experience rather than categorical distinctions between people is the compelling principle.

The personal status transition uppermost in my mind today is the move from full-time employment to a status of “retirement.”

My years both as the Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) and as the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department (NEJS) at Brandeis have been years of intense privilege. I use that term not as it is commonly used today—a kind of pejorative aimed at persons obliviously enjoying unearned entitlements—but rather in its traditional Jewish understanding. The Hebrew word for privilege, z’chut, as it is used in classical Jewish texts is not just being fortunate in obtaining something of value. Z’chut also implies having responsibility for something; it is connected to the doing of good deeds as well as to receiving benefits beyond what one’s own good deeds would entitle one to.

It was a privilege to work with Prof. Shulamit Reinharz in the creation of what came to be known as the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI). I am grateful to Shula for her generosity, warmth, energy, and vision, and I treasure our work together. It makes me happy to think of HBI thriving now in the capable hands and dynamic vision of Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe and an amazing staff. The wonderful Board of HBI has guided us well. Diane Troderman was our first HBI Board Chair, traveling from the Berkshires to attend weekly HBI staff meetings. Our board chairs and board members have been central to our development, including our current devoted chair, Dr. Phyllis Hammer. I look forward to seeing HBI’s new accomplishments unfold.

Similarly, from the start of my NEJS career, I have been privileged to work with colleagues who were excellent role models as well as true helpmeets, enablers and partners. I learned sociology of American Jews from the master, Prof. Marshall Sklare of blessed memory. Jonathan Sarna was NEJS departmental chair and my mentor in my critical early years. My Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) colleague Prof. Len Saxe generously helped me strategize logistics and scientific complexities. The current NEJS department chair, Jonathan Decter, is an exemplary scholar, administrator, and colleague. I have great confidence in him and our generations of young NEJS scholars going forward. My HBI and NEJS colleagues are an astonishingly nice, menschlech, and interesting group of people. It has been a z’chut, a privilege, to work with them.

I was privileged to work with outside colleagues on a series of compelling research projects on Jewish communal life. The first of those associations was with the American Jewish Committee’s Drs. David Singer and Steven Bayme, a relationship of more than three decades beginning with my intermarriage project, in which I analyzed interviews with 254 Jewish and non-Jewish men and women in intermarried, inmarried, and conversionary marriages. I was privileged to write articles and chapters with my cherished and much-missed Israeli colleague Charles Liebman, of blessed memory, with the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer (may he live long and prosper), and with the prolific scholar Steven M. Cohen. All my co-authors and research associates have been energetic and fearless; they don’t mind writing about challenging findings. Those relationships have added much richness and dimension to our lives. Not least, it was a privilege to work with my students, helping them find subjects that ignite their passions, helping them develop critical skills, to launch and develop their careers.

My colleagues at NEJS and HBI created a lovely, elegant—and very much appreciated–celebration to mark my change of status from full-time Brandeis employee to Emerita NEJS Professor and HBI Co-Director.

That change of status, however, falls into the category of a fluid, rather than sharply distinguished lehavdil. I look forward to continuing with both the compelling and meaningful work and the deep friendships that made my years at Brandeis such a privileged environment. I hope to continue writing about American Jewish sociology, life, culture and literature. I have already begun to spend more time painting—a lifelong passion that was largely confined to the summer months during the decades of my academic career. I expect that I will also continue teaching. This fall I’ll be initiating an adult education class for HBI and Me’ah Select: “Herstories: Changing Portrayals of Women in Jewish Literature.”

Thus, employment versus retirement status is not a lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol situation. I am not leaving my Brandeis interests behind. Instead for me (and many others) retirement is a condition of fluidity, far closer to the distinction implied by lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. As Emerita, I hope to be privileged to transition from one holy space and time to another.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Emerita Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies
and the former Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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