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Civil unions won’t break the chains

Orthodox women are caught in the 'get' trap both in Israel and the U.S. -- but for different reasons

Jewish marriage and divorce ceremonies in Israel and the United States, have become news items lately. Obtaining the get , a divorce document, given by the husband of his own “free will,” is handled differently in each country but the root of the problem and its eventual outcome are often the same. It’s hard to say where things are worse in these two large centers of Jewish life; one country won’t get involved in religious disputes; the other country, which views religious law as the law (in these “personal status” matters only) won’t enforce the law.

The heart of the trouble in both cases is in the interpretation of a certain biblical verse, (made for ancient gender identities and interpreted over the centuries by Orthodox rabbis and scholars,) in which only the husband can decide to terminate the marriage by handing his wife a get. (In medieval times, it was established that a wife has to accept the get.)

In the U. S., with its strict separation between religion and state, civil judges have no jurisdiction over religious disputes. In the case of a woman (or man, but he has an out–100 rabbis have to agree with him, and he is free) who wants a religious divorce and can’t obtain one, it’s tough luck because, in the eyes of the state, civil divorce is available. (Here and there, there are judges who know of the issue and will privately threaten to throw the book at the offending party, unless there is movement on the get. And, the State of New York has a carefully worded get law since 1992 which applies to the non-obstruction of an ex-spouse’s re-marriage.)

But public awareness of this unique Jewish problem took a startlingly new turn in late October when, in a sting operation, the FBI arrested two Orthodox rabbis in New York and New Jersey, who promised agunahs (women who cannot obtain gets) that for a (steep) fee, they would torture their recalcitrant husbands until the men came up with the precious document. In an unconnected matter, in early November, Gital, a young woman, wrote about her unending experiences of trying to obtain a religious divorce for the past three years from her husband on the pages of The New York Post.

To be honest, brute force was the manner in which get-withholders were handled in the past, when Jews lived in countries where the authorities didn’t care. Here, the innovation was that the allegedly offending rabbis would charge a fee, and they promised to provide torture. Terrible, naturally but I don’t remember the FBI ever getting involved when a woman, and/or her parents, had to pay for the get. Maybe the women didn’t complain; maybe the FBI didn’t care. Maybe it was all too Jewish. There are many such cases. A relative of mine “bought” her get for two-hundred thousand dollars; another dad of an agunah coughed up some $2 million for a get. It’s become the norm, even among the Modern Orthodox, to ask for money or custody or both for the get. Not only Orthodox Jews are vulnerable. Consider the non-Orthodox couple who married Orthodox but never bothered to obtain a get when they split. Fifteen years later, she discovers that she is still married to her first husband. At least her modern Orthodox date thinks so. They break up while she scrambles to find him.

In Israel, things are hardly better. Here, there’s a different problem necessitating an entire reform in marriage laws because religious court judges, will not marry (or divorce) couples with halakhic impediments to begin with. And these people have to travel abroad to marry civilly. In deeply contested divorces, get-withholders can suffer various sanctions, leading up to jail-time, but rabbinical court judges are often reluctant to enforce the law because by doing so, they fear they will be interfering in the husband’s free will and might create a false get. Even worse, the wife, assuming she is now divorced, could marry and bear a child whose status would be a mamzer–the offspring of a married woman and a man who is not her lawful husband. Gevalt! (The rabbis are also outraged that lately the civil courts are fining recalcitrant men.)

For these complex reasons, and without an ultra-Orthodox presence in the coalition government to pester anyone, not a day goes by without reports of the government’s willingness to bypass marriage-divorce altogether and back newfangled “civil unions.” These “unions” (there is currently a flurry of differently worded versions) would grant marital-like status to Israeli Jews who can’t or won’t approach the Rabbinate. Already in existence for steep legal fees, “unions” can be undone by a judge–although I met a woman, married civilly, with an unrecognized Reform religious wedding in Tel Aviv, who was required to obtain a get. (Read about her in the book I cowrote with Susan M. Weiss.)

Critics argue that “civil unions” and civil marriages and divorces are useless to the Israeli and/or Orthodox Jewish woman who wants a get. They fret that civil unions deeply flout the status-quo (which puts marriage and divorce in religious hands); that it could take years for state-backed “civil unions” to be born; and that already one government coalition partner, the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party is balking at including same sex couples in the “union” mix. But on the whole, while the “union” idea is not civil marriage, it’s better than nothing for overseas-bound treif couples. But, sadly, it basically says to Orthodox women who want a traditional get, the same thing said by American law: tough luck, baby.

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.