When we sit around the Seder table this coming Friday night, we will be fulfilling once again the commandment of retelling the story of our Exodus from Egypt, celebrating the holiday of our freedom from slavery.
It is precisely now that we must relate the stories of those of us who cannot celebrate their freedom, the agunot and mesuravot get who are being refused a Jewish divorce.
One of these women is Keren (all names have been changed), who has been struggling unsuccessfully for more than a decade to attain her personal Exodus and fulfill her right to freedom. In Keren’s case, her bondage and “shackles” cannot be seen on the outside; she appears to the world as a successful mother and accountant, nearly 50 years old. Some people who know her also knew her husband, Ziv, who used to be a successful lawyer. In fact, the beginning of their marriage looked very promising: Ziv was hired by one of the country’s prestigious law firms, Keren became an accountant, they had three wonderful children. Their life and their love seemed to ensure a successful future.
Unfortunately, this picturesque marriage turned out to have a dark side. A few months into their marriage, Ziv was struck with a bout of severe depression. He locked himself in his room, stayed in bed and begged for death. Keren thought at first that it was her fault, but after a few weeks, the old Ziv was back. About a year later, it happened again. Soon, the periods of depression grew longer and occurred more frequently. Family life was turned upside down as the “dark” periods eventually became the norm.
Eventually, Ziv was diagnosed with bi-polar disease. Keren was relieved to learn that his prolonged suffering could be helped. She was optimistic that, with the right care, the family could rebuild itself and look forward. But Ziv refused to take the medications that his doctor prescribed. He refused to attend therapy sessions or even entertain the thought that by not treating his illness he was causing irrevocable harm not only to himself, but to those around him. Life at home became hell.
And thus, the years passed and the children grew up. Keren decided to file for a divorce, to leave the hell that her life had become. She hired a good lawyer and their property was divided, but Ziv refused to give her a get. “I still love you and cannot bring myself to let you go,” he said.
More years passed. Ziv’s medical condition continued to grow worse; he continued to refuse help and he continued steadfastly to refuse to give Keren a divorce.
Although his mental illness was apparent to all, Ziv successfully convinced the rabbinical court judges time after time that he didn’t have to give his wife a get. First, he asked for professional marriage counseling. When that didn’t work, he asked for a psychiatrist. He promised the judges that he would do anything required of him by the professionals in order to stay married. But when both the marriage counselor and the psychiatrist recommended divorce, Ziv reneged on his promise. He continued to refuse to release Keren. Due to his condition, the court also did not apply any sanctions to him.
When Keren arrived at Yad L’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, she was exactly as you would expect of someone who has had her life taken away from her: bitter, lonely, desperate. Rabbinical Court Advocate and Attorney Tehilla Cohen, who handled Keren’s case, realized that sanctions and threats were irrelevant to this case and so decided on a different tactic. She met with Ziv and spoke to him for hours, and in the end emerged with a divorce agreement – based on love. She had successfully managed to stir up in Ziv his great love for Keren from the early years and direct that love towards understanding and empathy for her distress.
And so, in the middle of a Jerusalem snowstorm, when the roads were being closed, the judges and witnesses were brought to the court in special vehicles because no one would dream to postpone the giving of this get on its scheduled day. At the end of the day, the ceremony was emotional; Ziv cried, Keren cried, and even the heavens wept snowflakes.
This Pesach, Keren will sit at the Seder table as a free woman, a bat horin, and she will relate the story of her own personal Exodus from bondage to freedom. However, there are many other brave women who are still bonded to their recalcitrant husbands and fighting to be liberated. Let us empathize with them, remember them at our Seders, and pray that they, too, may taste freedom in the coming year.