The end of Jewish marriage?

What will it take to end the tragedy of women chained in Jewish marriage? This painful drama that plays out in religious courts, across social media and in newspapers from Tel Aviv to London to New York.

I asked this question to three people whose lives are dedicated to doing just that.

Batya Kahana- Dror, Adv. the Executive Director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that assists women in religious courts as they fight for their freedom.

We need civil marriage. We need answers in Jewish law that are not dependent on the husband to dissolve a marriage, and we need prenups that state that the marriage is annulled if a get is refused. Moreover, we need political pressure. It works.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of ORA which has so far assisted 231 women to attain their freedom.

We need universal adoption of the halakhic prenup. We need the judges in all religious courts to be understanding of the plight of agunot and domestic abuse and to not enable a husband to refuse a get. Finally, we need a pervasive attitude throughout the Jewish community that does not tolerate get refusal, since these men are empowered and enabled by the support that they receive from their families, friends, and communities.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, a Rabbinical Court Advocate, director of the Agunah & Get-Refusal Prevention Project of International Young Israel and the Jewish Agency, and a member of the Israel State Commission for the Appointment of Dayanim.

We need to prevent the problem of recalcitrant husbands by having couples take action in their marriage in an autonomous manner, without the need for permission from any authority.

Couples should sign the prenuptial Heskem l’Kavod Hadadi (Agreement for Mutual Respect on iyim.org.il) in Israel or internationally and the Beit Din of America prenup in the US (theprenup.org).  With universal coverage afforded by these agreements, the blight will be erased. We need to address the existing cases of agunot by massive public demand that the rabbinical courts rule halachic solutions of various severity in a daring and caring manner. There are those that do this, but they are not considered mainstream.

How close are we?

The tragedy and concern over Orthodox women being chained in marriage has gotten so great that women are asking if it is better not to be married according to Jewish law, lest they wind up trapped by Jewish law. Parents are afraid to let their daughters marry without a halachic prenup.

But these prenups- as valuable as they are in our current mess – are Band-aids. We are hemorrhaging and our surgeons are trying to patch, not heal, the wound.

As it stands, Jewish law mandates that a husband must be the one to give his wife a divorce. She cannot divorce him, nor can she leave her marriage without his agreement. She remains his wife even if he has left the country, lies in a coma, is living with another woman or just sits across from her refusing her a divorce.

— Here I digress to make a crucial point. There are those who claim that more men are chained in marriage than women. The figures that they use come from the religious courts, and it is critical to understand this statistic.The courts only count as ‘chained’, the men and women whose partners have already been ordered to give or receive a get by the court. They do not count the hundreds of cases waiting for a court decision. They do not count those who have not yet gotten to court. They do not include those women threatened with get refusal by their husbands who give in to the demands rather than be chained. It must also be noted that while not common or easy, men do have recourse. With signatures of 100 Rabbanim, he can marry a second wife. —

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A Jewish woman who is refused a get faces the following options:

  • To be alone, yet chained to a man she does not want to be with as she fights for freedom
  • To have a new Jewish relationship despite her status as married and have her future children be mamzerim (bastards)- a specific legal status for children of adultery that is incredibly ostracizing and prevents them from marrying Jews for 10 generations
  • To find herself a non Jewish man to be happy with

(Ironically, this last option which is not an option for most religious Jews, is the one that best guarantees her freedom and that of the next 10 generations… In Judaism, religion follows the mother. Any children she has – even with the Pope – would be Jewish but not mamzerim.)

How many young women and girls know these facts when they agree to get married?

In a society that so stresses dating, marriage, and children, why is this not made clear?

Are girls told that the marriage they dream of has the capacity to hold them hostage? Do they know that the only guaranteed exit from a marriage where the husband refuses his wife the divorce is his death?

How many young men are taught that withholding a get is abuse?

Ask around. You might find yourself very surprised.

I, and nearly all the people I asked did not know at the time of our marriages that these are the facts of marriage and divorce in Jewish law as it is practiced today.

How dare we allow young people to enter into such a contract without knowledge and protection?

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Things are changing slowly, and a number of rabbis will not marry a couple without a halachic prenuptial agreement. This is excellent. However, it is not enough.

Using prenups to solve the problem dilutes the halachic headspace  that should be used to fix the system- for it is the SYSTEM that is broken.

When the religious institution of marriage cannot be dissolved by a religious institution that deems the marriage beyond repair, then we have a problem.

When religious women contemplate marriage outside of chuppah because it comes with fewer risks than marriage inside one, alarm bells should ring.

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What should we be doing?

1- We must cry out to end this phenomenon. We must pressure the courts, rabbis and communal leaders to make this priority number one. Each and every one of us has this responsibility. (There is a demonstration Wednesday, March 4, Agunah Day at the Jerusalem Rabbinical court at 10AM for this purpose. Please join!)

2- Halachic minds must use the sources and creative thinking and agree on solutions that empower courts to end a marriage even when one person refuses.

3- Until this is accomplished, we owe it to ourselves and all future generations to educate all couples on what Jewish marriage really means, convince society that get refusal is abuse, and to ensure that couples sign a halachic prenup- preferably the Agreement for Mutual Respect. Legislation should be passed requiring rabbis to use the prenup when officiating weddings. Hold post nup parties in shuls to make it “the norm” and accepted!

Jewish marriage should only be a joyous occasion- never one that is shadowed by fear or uncertainty. Resolving agunot issues can help ensure that.

To help raise awareness please use one of the memes in this post for your avatars and spread the word for Agunah Day March 4 2015.

For more information on pre nups or post nups or to help please write to the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of IYIM:  iyimisrael@gmail.com

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of chochmatnashim.org She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at skjaskoll.com
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