In my fourteen years of practicing as a rabbi I have been asked numerous times to offer counsel and support to couples in failing marriages. Despite the fact that it takes two to tango, often the breakdown of a marriage is more the fault of one party than the other. Yet, no matter how the marriage ends and who is at fault, if the husband does not actively agree to give a Gett (Jewish religious divorce) immediately after the wife requests it he is always in the wrong no matter what.
From a religious perspective, the Torah is very protective about the feelings and dignity of women — even more so than that of men. The Talmud warns men to never hurt their spouses feelings and or cause them to weep. It cautions men to be exceedingly careful about their spouses dignity and honor (Baba Metzia, 59a) and to respect and honor them more than they honor themselves (Yevamot, 62b, Maimonides, Ishut, 15:19). These guidelines are based on Biblical sources and have been codified into Jewish law. Furthermore the Talmud tells us that in matters of worldly and household affairs the women’s opinion takes precedence to that of the man’s (Baba Metzia, ibid).
Clearly a man who refuses his wife’s request to give a religious bill of divorce for any period of time after it is made clear that from her perspective the marriage is over, is contravening these extremely serious sections of Jewish law in the most grievous manner possible. But refusing to give a Gett is also the mark of a man who lacks basic human empathy and common decency.
In civil divorces either spouse has the right to file for divorce. Once the papers are filed the process is set in motion and after all matters have been settled the divorce is finalized. Granted this can take some time, but once one party files the other has to go along with it. In the case of a Gett it is entirely different. The wife has no ability to file. The best she can do is ask her husband to cooperate with a Jewish court or rabbi to have the Gett written on his behalf and then handed over to her in front of witnesses. Should he refuse, insisting instead that he would like to remain married there is nothing she can do–she becomes an Aguna or a chained women with no way of extracting herself from the man she no longer wants to be married to.
In Jewish law this means that she can not remarry or have a serious relationship with another man–she remains stuck unable to move on with her life. This is in contradistinction to the husband who can still find ways to remarry should his wife refuse to accept a Gett. In addition the religious sanctions the husband may face should the he have a relationship with a woman other than his Gett-refusing-wife are far less severe than those faced by a woman in the identical situation.
Thus, in Judaism when a man refuses to give his wife a Gett he is taking away her most basic human right — her freedom to live and be who she wants to be. The moment the wife decides she no longer wants to be married to her husband human empathy and common decency dictates that he must let her free. By finding excuses for not doing so he is controlling her in a manner that contravenes every aspect of her basic human rights. There is only one apt description for that type of behavior — pure evil.
Some men hide behind Jewish law as a reason not to give a Gett. They argue that all aspects of the divorce needs to be settled before they are Halachicly (according to Jewish law) allowed to give the Gett. They then proceed to make any settlement as difficult as possible, allowing them to continue their abusive and controlling behavior. Tragically there are some Jewish courts that allow men to behave this way. Happily, however, most of the larger reputable Jewish courts will not allow narcissistic men to use religion as a tool to further abuse and blackmail their wives. The most obnoxious Gett refusers, however, seem to avoid reputable Jewish courts. As pernicious, are men who tell their wife, who is desperate for a divorce, that they “want to work on their marriage” and therefore won’t give a Gett. Again this ploy won’t work at most reputable Jewish courts.
In the final analysis, the refusal to give a Gett by a husband, for any reason, will cause pain to his wife and therefore is not only contrary to the spirit of Judaism it contravenes the letter of the law as well. But beyond that it is a terrible desecration of G-d’s name because it in essence is just another example of the cynical use of religion to hurt and control another human being. Tragically this is yet another case of women being especially disadvantaged in this regard.
Decent men and women must not be silent when they see religion being used to batter and abuse others. Saying that this is not my business or that I need to know the entire story before I can judge is not acceptable. With regards a Gett the man holds all the power and the women has none. Thus, the instant he refuses her request for a Gett he is automatically in the wrong — no matter what the background story is or was. Decent people everywhere therefore must speak out against such people, and the religious courts who aid and abet them, to the degree that it becomes socially unacceptable not to immediately give a Gett upon request.
As the Halachic Prenup, which ensures substantial monetary penalties for not giving a Gett, becomes more popular this problem will hopefully become a thing of the past. But until that happens there are still women who are chained and suffering and it is up to you and me to do all we can to ensure that their evil tormentors do not get away with it.