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A get-refuser in our midst

Ordinary people may not want to treat anyone poorly, but in this case, that's exactly the right thing to do
Illustrative: Books of the Talmud. (iStock)
Illustrative: Books of the Talmud. (iStock)

Picture this — A small town in Israel with a vibrant community life, filled with fine people. It really is a place where it’s good to live. Then, one day, reality slaps the good men and women of the town in the face. The State Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem issued a ruling against one of the neighbors that spoke volumes: All the possible sanctions that can be levied by law against a get-refuser were applied to this man, stating that if he did not give a get within a month the Rabbinical Court would weigh ordering his imprisonment until he would do so. Moreover, two additional halakhic sanctions were listed (in literal translation): He is not to be joined to a minyan; One should not do any good act for him, host him, and the like.

The rabbi of the town followed suit, sending three separate letters addressed to all members of his community maintaining that everyone must follow the instructions of the rabbinical court. The last of his letters quoted the words of the rabbinical court above and spelled out examples of the Harchakot Rabbeinu Tam — community sanctions that are a matter of Jewish law — which should be employed: Not to accept him into the synagogue, not to host him, not to give him rides, not to help him whatsoever, with all that this entails. The rabbi added that the time has come to put efforts toward adding pressure, such as demonstrations, that would, with G-d’s help, bring the husband to obey the rabbinical court and give the get.

The negative treatment of a get-refuser by ordinary people does not come naturally. Even the Talmud states that Jews are by nature rachmanim — compassionate. From birth, many of us are educated to speak nicely, to be polite. It simply goes against most people’s nature to be nasty to a neighbor, rather he or she must be treated with respect. We hesitate to put ourselves in an adversarial situation. It is much easier to avoid controversy. We are taught that it is wrong to raise our voices, let alone express ourselves with abusive language. Moreover, if someone is alone, we are taught to be kind to him or her, with invitations into our homes and lives. Lovingkindness is a Jewish virtue.

Some people, when faced with an ugly divorce in their vicinity opine: It’s wrong to say anything, it is lashon hara — slander prohibited in Jewish law. Others may say — one has to hear both sides of the story before making a judgement call.

That’s just it — in the case of a get-refuser where the rabbinical court has ruled that the husband is obligated to give the get and all the more so when it has gone so far as to levy sanctions against him — it is actually lashon hara for anyone else to talk about “both sides of the story.” Both sides of the story have been thoroughly heard — in a court of Jewish law. The rabbinic judges are those who are taught how to investigate both sides of the story. Rest assured that each side retained legal representation to present the story vigorously in the best possible manner. Everything was heard. It is not a layperson’s place to hear both sides once judgement has been passed. It is incumbent on us to abide by the court’s ruling. In fact it is a mitzvah d’rabbanan — a rabbinic commandment. As the community at hand is a religious one, it would be incumbent upon its members to heed this particular mitzvah.

Misplaced compassion has disastrous results. As it says in our sources: “He who is compassionate to those who are cruel, becomes cruel to the compassionate” (Rav Elazar, Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora). In this case, the rabbinic court is putting this axiom into practice. In fact, Maimonides ruled that a recalcitrant husband should be whipped until he says “I want” to give the get as the judges ordered (Hilchot Gerushin 2). However, today since we cannot whip transgressors of a rabbinic ruling to give the get, the court has to resort to reality metaphorically “slapping” the get-refuser in the face. That is the purpose of levying sanctions — legal and halakhic.

We all have to break out of our comfort zone and, on both a communal and an individual level, make it clear to a get-refuser — get-refusal is not tolerated!

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.
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