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A prying shame: The public scrutiny of get refusers

We need to stop publicly prying into the nitty gritty of people's marriages and divorces in agunah cases
In May 2017, Zvia Gordetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years (Courtesy)
In May 2017, Zvia Gordetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years (Courtesy)

There’s a new get refuser in town. Two weeks ago, the Haifa Rabbinic Court issued a ruling to publicly shame a man who has refused to give his wife a Jewish divorce for the past two years, and put him in cherem, a social sanction involving public and private excommunication from communal life. The court’s edict instructs the community not to speak to him, conduct business dealings with him, count him for a minyan in synagogue, call him up for the Torah, offer him food and drink, and the like.

In order to dissolve a Jewish marriage, a man must deliver a formal bill of divorcement — the “get” — to his wife, and refusing to grant one leaves her chained to the marriage indefinitely (a chained woman is colloquially known as an agunah).

In the past two weeks since this most recent shaming campaign went public, the man tried to defend his recalcitrance by countering that his wife was alienating him from their children. Since then, the religious community in Israel has been dissecting the couple’s divorce to death. Who is the real victim? Who is the real bad guy? Being reasonable people, we all want to hear “both sides of the story” before casting judgement, so we pry, gossip, and expose the intimate details of this couple’s custody battle and property disputes. There are young children in the picture.

Credit: MK Revital Swid, Twitter

Yesterday, Member of Knesset Yehuda Glick inexplicably invited the get refuser du jour to the Knesset (he has yet to comment on why he did this). A bunch of female MKs from across the political divide — plus a sprinkling of male MKs — walked out of the plenum, livid that a get refuser, condemned by the court to be publicly shamed for abusing his wife, was now being feted in the most prestigious forum in the land, and by a religious MK at that. A seething MK Rachel Azaria excoriated him from the Knesset podium.

Everything escalates. The woman still doesn’t have her get.

We need to stop publicly prying into the nitty gritty of people’s marriages and divorces in agunah cases. It doesn’t help, and it legitimizes get refusal.

Here is why:

When it comes to trapping a person in a marriage against their will, it doesn’t matter if the husband is evil/wonderful or if the wife is evil/wonderful. Women deserve freedom because they are people, not because men are evil. You don’t earn the right to be free by being a perfect victim, nor do you earn the privilege to abuse someone by being a perfect victim.

Exposing the details of marital breakdown or custody battles as a way to see who is the “good guy” in the story implies that get refusal is a legitimate tool that is warranted under certain conditions, so it is our job to determine if those conditions have been met. It sends the message that, if she had been really awful to him, then she deserved it. Or if he’s been dealt a really bad deal, then he can use the get as a weapon to extort what he needs. It says that freedom is not a given for a woman; it is something she is entitled to only if she is found to be the more virtuous party. But here’s the thing: denying a person freedom by refusing a get is never warranted, the same way that other domestic abuse is never warranted.

Agunot are not fodder for publicity stunts and they are not damsels in distress. They are women, people, who have the right to be free regardless of anyone’s character appraisals of them or of their husbands.

About the Author
Rachel Stomel is a literary translator, graphic designer and slam poet. She is passionate about social justice in the Jewish community, with a special focus on women’s rights and issues of religion and state. She is the English communications director for the Center for Women's Justice, a legal advocacy NGO advancing the civil and religious liberties of Israeli women.
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