March 1, 2021

Creative Legal Solutions to Prevent Get-Refusal

By Shanna T. Giora-Gorfajn

Over the past 50 years, laws across the U.S. have evolved to recognize that a person should not be forced to remain in a marriage that is irretrievably broken. But as women in particular have made progress with no-fault divorce and financial independence, religious law has ironically—though perhaps unsurprisingly—gained traction as a way for men to assert power over their would-be ex-wives.

To effect a divorce under Jewish law, the husband must give his wife a get (a religious document of divorce), which can be issued and delivered only with his consent. The classical definition of an agunah (literally, a “chained woman”) described a woman trapped in marriage to a man who could not give her a get—either because he had gone missing or because he lacked capacity to form the requisite intent. Over time, this term has come to also refer to a woman whose husband is purposely obstructing the religious divorce process by withholding a get.

Tomorrow, the day before Purim, is Ta’anit Esther, commemorating the fast declared by Queen Esther—herself a woman chained to an unwanted marriage. Tomorrow we will also observe International Agunah Day, raising awareness of the plight of agunot today and standing together with them in solidarity.

It is also a time to highlight the work of the Boston Agunah TaskForce, a part of HBI’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law. BATF is devoted to research, education, and advocacy for fairness in the Jewish divorce process. We believe that withholding a Jewish divorce is a form of domestic abuse. Together with our allies in the movement on behalf of agunot, we seek to employ a range of remedies to change the culture around get-refusal.

Some use get-refusal as a means to an end, demanding custody or financial concessions before fulfilling the religious requirements. Others seem to engage in this vengeful power play for its own sake, a demonstration of continued control preventing a woman from moving on with her life.

Both men and women can find themselves at the mercy of a recalcitrant spouse. However, there are more dire consequences under Jewish law for women who remain technically bound to dead marriages. A man whose wife refuses to cooperate in receiving a get may seek rabbinic dispensation allowing him to remarry. For a woman, there is no such loophole. Any new relationship with another man would be deemed adulterous. A woman’s status as an agunah is not only a barrier to remarriage; it may also affect the woman’s freedom to begin dating again and the legitimacy of any future children in their religious communities. But there is no simple remedy at civil law; because a Jewish divorce requires the husband’s knowing consent, a court order directing the husband to give a get could be viewed as forcing his hand, rendering the get invalid under Jewish law.

One popular approach has been to encourage couples to sign a binding arbitration agreement  (approved by the Beth Din of America) before they are married, whereby they commit to cooperate in the get process should either party seek a divorce. Despite increasing acceptance among engaged couples, this sort of agreement has not been adopted universally—and it can be of no help where it does not exist.

BATF has engaged in a collaborative effort by rabbis, legal scholars, and practicing attorneys to develop the GetReady initiative—a procedure to be implemented during a divorce, allowing for meaningful enforcement in civil court without invalidating the get under Jewish law. Both parties agree to engage in binding arbitration limited to the issuance, delivery, and acceptance of the get, identifying a mutually acceptable rabbinical court as the arbitration board and committing themselves to completing their roles in the process quickly (ideally within a matter of weeks).  The rabbinical court may then hold back the “receipt” needed to prove a religious divorce until after there is a final judgment in the civil divorce matter.

In most circumstances, tension between the parties will only increase as the case progresses. Therefore, we encourage individuals to raise the issue of the get with their attorneys from the outset, even if get-refusal seems unlikely in their particular situation. It is an unfortunate reality of divorce that even formerly loving spouses can turn aggressive, nasty, or downright unethical as they become entrenched in divorce proceedings.

There is often a window of opportunity when the parties initially separate, as they work together to sort out immediate logistical issues such as weekly parenting schedules or paying bills for the marital home. These things need to get done now, irrespective of how the final settlement will shake out, so the lights stay on and the children know where they will be sleeping next Tuesday night. If that line of communication is open, it’s also a good time to have both parties agree, in writing, to cooperate in the get process as simply another thing that must get done. Addressing the get early on removes the incentive for either party to leverage get-refusal as a weapon in later negotiations. If one party resists making this commitment, that’s a red flag that trouble may be brewing.

Even if the parties intend to negotiate a full divorce agreement in mediation or with the assistance of lawyers, we suggest that they address the get as one of the first steps in that process. They can sign a memorandum of understanding or interim agreement dealing solely with the issuance, delivery, and acceptance of the get. This memorandum should state that both parties intend for it to remain in effect even if negotiations break down and one or the other files for a contested divorce.

Finally, we encourage every divorcing Jewish couple to include a section in their divorce agreement referencing the get, even if they have already resolved this issue to their mutual satisfaction. This acknowledgment helps raise awareness of the get requirement among lawyers and judges. As it becomes more commonplace, we anticipate a somewhat easier road for agunot seeking intervention of the civil courts in their fights.

It is important to find creative solutions and to educate family law attorneys and judges about these issues.  Get-refusal is emotional abuse. Unlike other forms of abuse, however, a judge cannot enter a restraining order to curb this behavior or mitigate its effects.

Through both the Beth Din of America’s arbitration agreement and BATF’s GetReady initiative, couples commit to a fair and equitable religious dissolution of the marriage. The ultimate goal is to reduce emotional abuse in the Jewish community by publicizing and normalizing get-cooperation.

We anticipate that we can help shift community norms through widespread adoption of all these procedures: to commit to equity prior to the marriage; to address issuance of the get early in the divorce process; and to routinely acknowledge the get in divorce agreements. This also shifts the balance of power, by tying the religious divorce process back to a more egalitarian civil process and providing an avenue for enforcement within the court system.

The Boston Agunah Taskforce is proud to be a member of CHEIRUT, a new international network connecting organizations throughout the world whose mission is to help agunot. There’s so much we can accomplish when we work together, most importantly showing agunot that they are not alone—that we “get it.”

Too many of us know women who have gone through traumatic divorces, experienced get-refusal, or received their get only after making steep concessions. On this Agunah Day, please help us amplify support for agunot by using the hashtag #iGETit on social media. Together, we can make a difference!

Shanna T. Giora-Gorfajn, Esq., is the Chair of the Legal Advisory Board for the Boston Agunah Taskforce and an associate at The Wagner Law Group P.C., where her practice focuses on family law and estate planning.

The Boston Agunah Taskforce is funded by a generous grant from the Miriam Fund of CJP and other donors. We welcome donations to support our continued work.

Welcome to HBI’s Spring Semester

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

The new spring term begins here at Brandeis this week. While we are still in a virtual world, we continue to offer a full roster of programs. This semester, I am looking forward to teaching, “Jewish Feminisms” to a new generation of students who are passionate about Jewish women’s and gender studies. Our expanded online offerings to the public will run through the spring with a full roster of events that include explorations of gender, race, and Israeli art through Studio Israel; meetings with authors of important new works in Jewish studies scholarship, memoir and fiction through HBI Conversations; explorations of the experience of Latin American Jewish women in programs from our  Latin American Jewish Gender Studies Project; the launch of the spring issue of our journal Nashim on Jewish Feminist Ethnographies; and the opening of our online art exhibition, The Fez as Storyteller, by Iraqi-American artist, Camille Eskell. 

Scholars in Residence

This term we welcome two virtual scholars in residence. Please join us at the Institute Seminar to learn more about their work,  and that of other HBI affiliates and invited guests.

Conceiving Motherhood: The Reception of Biblical Mothers in the Early Jewish Imagination

Sari Fein is a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis. Her areas of interest include Hebrew Bible, Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity, and women’s and gender studies. Sari’s dissertation is on the reception history of biblical mothers in early Jewish art and literature. During her residency, Sari will be working on chapters on the afterlife of Rachel in Lamentations Rabbah, and the many lives of the “Mother of Seven” in 2 and 4 Maccabees, and rabbinic literature.

The Crooked and the Straight: Queer Theory and Rabbinic Literature

Gwynn Kessler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Director of the Beit Midrash at Swarthmore College. She received her Ph.D. in Talmud and Rabbinics, with a specialization in midrash, from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Conceiving Israel: The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives (UPenn, 2009) and co-editor with Naomi Koltun-Fromm of A Companion to Late Ancient Jews and Judaism (Wiley Blackwell, 2020). She is currently working on her second monograph that uses queer theory to examine rabbinic constructions of gender and the body. 

Research Awards

We are also pleased to announce the recipients of the 2021 HBI Research Awards which recognize and support new work that will make an important contribution to the field of Jewish women’s and gender studies. With the help of evaluations by our Academic Advisory Committee, HBI supported 16 outstanding projects from various disciplines. You can see the full list of award winners here. Congratulations to previous award winner Nancy Sinkoff, whose book From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish His­to­ry was honored with a 2021 National Jewish Book Award in the category of biography. 

Wishing you all a healthy and productive spring.

Warmly,

Lisa

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of Hadassah Brandeis Institute.  

Researching the Lost Portrait of Gutle Rothschild

By Susan Nashman Fraiman

Researching a lost work of art is like solving a mystery—and, as is often the case, sometimes the mystery is only partially unraveled, while threads of other mysteries are discovered.  “The Lost Portrait of Gutle Rothschild,”   an article about a painting by Moritz Oppenheim (published online in Judaica. Neue Digitale Folge) began as a serious project while I was an HBI Research Associate in 2012-2013. This painting has only survived in a black and white photograph taken in Germany in the 1930s. The “herstory” of Jewish history is not often reflected in written sources, and a wide variety of objects, portraits included, can help complete the picture.

Portrait of Gutle Rothschild, black and white

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), Portrait of Gutle Rothschild, 1840/9, photo from the glass negative in the archives of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt

Three things drew me to this subject: my interest in the depiction of early modern Jewish women, my interest in the artist Moritz Oppenheim, and lastly, my interest in art lost in the Holocaust. What truly inspired and facilitated the research was a detailed description of the painting by Guido Schoenberger in what was to be the last issue of the Jüdisches Gemeindblatt, published right before Kristallnacht, the events of November 9-10, 1938. As it would happen, I found this description while investigating another painting by Oppenheim, and thus had to postpone further research into this intriguing portrait of Gutle Rothschild for a while. 

Moritz Oppenheim was the first modern Jewish artist to remain Jewish, unlike the artists Philipp Veit, the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, (1793-1877) or Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889). The road to equality and opportunity in Germany, even during the Napoleonic period and afterward, was often paved by conversion—even when not undertaken from conviction; Heinrich Heine is a well-known example.  It is thus notable that Oppenheim, as a Jew, managed to study in art academies, join the Freemasons, live in Rome surrounded by artists from all over Europe, and return to Frankfurt, where he became an established portrait painter, also executing civic and private commissions. In Frankfurt, Oppenheim was retained as the “official” artist of the Rothschild family, not only painting their portraits but instructing family members and purchasing art for them. Within this context, he painted the portrait of Gutle (1753-1849) about nine years before her death at the ripe old age of 92. The painting hung in the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt until 1938.  Schoenberger, (1891-1974), a Jewish art historian, served as the curator of that museum after being evicted from his other posts with the rise of the Nazi party, and in this role wrote the aforementioned article about Gutle Rothschild for the Jewish community newspaper.  Schoenberger’s description of the painting is thorough—in the article he called attention to the exact dating of the work, the setting, the dress of the subject, and the objects with which she was depicted. This detailed account gave me a basis from which to attempt to put the painting and its subject in context. 

Gutle Rothschild was the wife of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, and together they founded the Rothschild dynasty.  Their five sons spread out over Europe, creating branches of the family bank in Frankfurt, Naples, Vienna, London and Paris.  While much research has been devoted to the father and the sons, little has been written about Gutle. Although Gutle was a venerated figure, there is no one source for her biography. Yet her role in the family was key, both before and after her husband’s early death. In my research, I culled information from sources as disparate as Heinrich Heine’s memoirs, the Times of London, and stories by Hans Christian Andersen. Gutle’s portrait was unique among Oppenheim’s works and among depictions of women in art in general, as she was depicted with a newspaper and prayer book in front of her, on the background of the main square of the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto and its synagogue. In contrast, most of Oppenheim’s portraits of the Rothschild family are on solid backgrounds, and it was rare for a woman’s portrait of that time by any artist to have so many additional details, let alone “Jewish semiotics”, as Richard Brilliant has called them.  As such, Oppenheim created an extraordinary work, faithful to his subject and her surroundings.

The fate of the painting is unknown. Schoenberger managed to get to the United States in 1939, where he served as a lecturer at New York University and research fellow of the Jewish Museum in New York City. With the Frankfurt museum’s Jewish curatorial staff dispersed, there were few if any witnesses to what actually happened to the collection during the war. Some of the museum’s works were left in Frankfurt, and others shipped to outlying locations during the war for safe-keeping.  The bombing of Frankfurt by the Allies from 1943 on led to much destruction.  Nevertheless, some of the Oppenheim works that had hung alongside Gutle’s portrait in the museum surfaced after the war, and some of these are in the Israel Museum collection today. Will the article lead to finding the portrait?  I wouldn’t rule it out, since as we know, artworks hidden or misattributed since World War II continue to appear in the news. It is my hope that greater awareness of this painting will contribute to making the story of Gutle Rothschild better known and add to the history of Jewish women. 

Dr. Susan Nashman Fraiman is a researcher and curator of Jewish and Israeli art.  She currently lectures at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has a blog at www.artinisrael.net. She was an HBI Research Associate in 2012-2013. 

Jewish Feminism: From Brandeis to the World

By Amy Powell

Rivka Cohen and Naima Hirsch’s journey from Orthodox girlhoods where they grew up without discussing bodies and sexuality to editors of a successful book modeled after the Vagina Monologues runs straight through Brandeis. 

In October, HBI hosted these young women, along with Alona Weimer, (Brandeis ’18) and Jordyn Kaufman, two of the many contributors to Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity as they read some of the poetry and prose in their book. They shared their stories of exploring Jewish feminism at Brandeis and the ways they found the community they needed to allow these ideas to blossom and grow, enabling them to continue to form this sort of community among other young Jewish observant women after leaving Brandeis. The courageous book they created together continues that work, opening an avenue for ongoing dialogue and the breaking of taboos. Monologues is also edited by Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover.

Rivka Cohen

I wouldn’t be who I am today or the feminist I am today if it weren’t for Brandeis so it feels really incredible to be back here,” said Cohen ‘17. She pointed to specific things at Brandeis that jumpstarted her journey within Jewish feminism. One pivotal point was becoming a gabbai at the Orthodox minyan. “I understood it to be an inherently feminist role and I fought together with others in the community to increase women’s participation in Orthodox services and in the larger Jewish community.” 

The religious feminist journey continued as she and some of the others in this community ultimately co-founded JFAB, The Jewish Feminist Association at Brandeis, and one of the co-sponsors of the Monologues event at HBI, along with Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University Creative Writing and Brandeis Alumni Association. 

“On a more personal note, my time at Brandeis also intersected with my struggle with my sense of sexuality. I didn’t have much sex ed growing up in the Orthodox community and I even ditched portions of sex ed at the Brandeis orientation because didn’t think it applied to me,” Cohen said. “It was only during my sophomore year, during Vagina Week, which is the week leading up to the Vagina Monologues, that I decided to attend an event with a sexologist who spoke about sex with an openness and positivity I had never heard before. But, I was still deeply entrenched in the Orthodox community. The tension between my feminism and Jewish approaches to sexuality were stark and difficult to navigate.”

Naima Hirsch, now in her first year at Yeshivat Maharat, graduated from Hunter College, but spent three formative summers at Brandeis, two with the high school program BIMA and one in 2018 with HBI in the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program. 

Naima Hirsch

“When I was an intern at HBI, I wrote a short poetry chapbook called Daughter of the Tribe. The eight weeks that summer was an incredibly formative experience for me both as I explored my identity as a Jewish women, as a feminist, as a writer.  I’m really grateful to HBI for giving me the experience and the language to be here today. I think it’s a big stepping stone for me to be here today,” said Hirsch. 

The pieces they read detailed important turning points in their lives and issues that were hard to discuss in their communities. Jordyn Kaufman’s prose, Built Up Bravery, detailed the awkwardness of getting her period and not discussing it with anyone, even her mother. 

Jordyn Kaufman

Alona Weimer

Weimer wrote about “Falling in Love with Tefillin,” as she watched a friend grapple with his own readiness for prayer in the act of wrapping his tefillin. She described the moment later as taking place during a casual shacharit service in the Shapiro Lounge during her time at Brandeis. “To be an observant Jew and a feminist, there is always some grappling with ritual and the embodiment of that ritual. … This project lets us describe and name all the ways we have been grappling with ritual, sexuality and all the ways our bodies interact with Judaism,” Weimer said. 

Rivka Cohen read an excerpt from her prose, “Touching Boy,” and how she broke shomer negiah (the practice of not touching a member of the opposite sex) for the first time. Other themes in the book deal with masturbation, LGBTQ issues, ritual, prayer and a general lack of openness about sexuality. 

The writing draws important connections between tznius (modesty), sex education, and vulnerability to sexual assault, and between emphasis on the body and the silencing of women’s voices, said Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, HBI director.  Some of the themes deal with boundaries and the way that the education they received did not teach some of the writers how to create their own boundaries with regard to consent, she added.

Joffe praised the book for stimulating intergenerational and important conversations around these subjects.  “It has been my pleasure to follow this project from an early stage. I found this work, and the collaborative process for creating it, truly inspiring. This brave collection explores the tension between religious norms and the lived experience of young Jewish women. Through the lens of poetry and prose, contributors engage with the complex impact of gendered codes of modesty on Jewish women from adolescence through to motherhood.  

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Exercise Your Right to Vote

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

HBI is proud to be a sponsor of Jewish Women Vote, a program to encourage Jewish women to use the franchise that generations of Jewish women have fought hard to secure for themselves and others; and part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. 

Jewish women have been part of the ongoing struggle for women’s right to vote in the United States since the turn of the 20th century.  In 1851, Ernestine Rose, a Jewish woman who immigrated to the U.S. after fleeing an arranged marriage and successfully suing her husband for the return of her inheritance, spoke at the Second National Women’s Rights Convention, calling for women to be given full political, social and legal rights. Rose persevered in this work, in the face of antisemitic criticism of her in the popular press and antisemitic hostility towards Judaism in the discourse of the suffrage movement, which identified the Jewish bible and traditions as the source of patriarchal notions of women’s inferiority. When it came time for states to vote on the question of women’s suffrage, historian Pamela Nadell notes that women’s advocacy in their own community meant that men in Jewish neighborhoods turned out en masse to vote in favor of women’s enfranchisement. 

Jewish women’s involvement in this secular struggle was entwined with movements to secure Jewish women’s equality in their Jewish lives as well. Historian Melissa Klapper (2007 HBI Scholar in Residence), notes that Jewish women’s success in securing the right to the secular vote in the U.S. in 1920 gave them the skills and awakened the desire in them to seek greater equality in access to ritual participation, leadership roles and under Jewish law, struggles that continue to this day.

Today, the struggle to vote continues evidenced by long lines, the pandemic, and reports of interference in the election by foreign players. In addition to being part of the Jewish Women Vote coalition, HBI is part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. That campaign includes a series of videos from members of the Brandeis community. Be inspired by a sampling of the community’s reflections on voting (below), and join Jewish women from across the country to reflect on what this right means to you.

Anita Hill, University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Early suffragists blame male lawmakers, jurors and judges for the unfettered physical and sexual abuse men wielded against women.

Winning the right to vote for women was their antidote to sexual assault at home, on the streets and in workplaces.

Unfortunately, in their passionate pursuit of personal and political autonomy, few white activists consider how Native, Brown and Black women’s oppression under colonialism, immigration law and slavery figured into the solution suffragist sought.

As we struggle today to eliminate blind spots that have weakened our claim to universal personal and political autonomy, abuses borne by diverse individuals of all genders because of their gender continue at shocking rates.

We can’t wait another one hundred years.

We must use the franchise to ensure both our political and personal equality and we must deploy our votes to enact laws and elect representatives that will, in the words of abolitionist and feminist crusader Sarah Grimke, ‘Get our brethren to take their feet off our necks.’

ChaeRan Freeze, Frances and Max Elkon Chair in Modern Jewish History

As long as I reside on stolen native lands, I vote because I care about Indigenous sovereignty, sacred sites in traditional culture, the epidemic of murdered and missing women and girls, the right of native children to grow up in their own communities, and environmental rights.

I am painfully aware that this country has long suppressed Indigenous vote and political participation even as native matrilineal traditions inspired the white suffragists and their struggle for the 19th Amendment a century ago.

The fight for the right to vote is still unfinished.

For me voting, is a powerful way to protect the lands and lives of the very people in whose homelands I dwell as a guest.”

 MJ Ibrahim, ’23, MLK Scholar at Brandeis University

Now even though I myself am not eligible to vote as I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident,this election cycle will dictate whether or not my family and I will remain in the United States and continue the life we’ve been building over the past five years or we would be deported back to Iraq where we are going to be facing persecution and potential execution due to ethnic and religious clashes as well as political instability.

Sabine von Mering, Professor of German and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (dressed as a polar bear)

Hi! I’m Sabine von Mering. I’m a professor at Brandeis and also a climate activist and here is why I vote.

First of all, elections are decided by those who vote.

Secondly, I’m a naturalized citizen in the United States and I still remember what it was like when I didn’t have the right to vote so to me voting is a privilege that I take very seriously.

And finally, as a climate activist I understand that I can do a lot to address the climate crisis.

I can reduce my carbon footprint. I can put solar panels on my roof. I can drive a tiny electric car and go vegan, but ultimately the big decisions are made by the people we elect.

 

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI. 

Jewish Women vote, presented Friday, October 16 at 3:30 p.m. EDT, features Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Rabbi Mira Rivera, Abby Stein, And Rabbi Isaama Goldstein Stoll, is a nonpartisan, pluralistic celebration of Shabbat and voting. Register today!

Jewish Women Vote is presented by the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and Jewish Women International and co-sponsored by Alpha Epsilon Phi, B’nai B’rith Girls, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, Jewish Women’s Funding Network, Keshet, Lilith Magazine, NA’AMAT USA, Sigma Delta Tau, Women of Reform Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinic Network.

 

 

 

 

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