Earlier this year, Esther Kahan, a nursery practitioner at Noam Primary School in the UK, finally received a get, a Jewish bill of divorce, after being denied one by her ex-husband for more than 15 years. To get it though, she had to pay her ex-husband, Shmiel Kahan, £50,000.
Mrs. Kahan told Jewish News, “I went through the usual channels to try to compel my former husband to give me a get, but was thwarted each time by Mr. Kahan, who asked for vast sums of money in return, or attached near-impossible conditions.”
Earlier this year, too, Israeli courts convicted a man of criminal charges for refusing to give his wife a get since he and his wife began divorce proceedings in 1998. On orders of the rabbinical court, Meir Gorodetzky has been in prison for 18 years for his refusal; the court’s order for the last 18 years was civil, not criminal. However, in a first for Israel, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court convicted him on criminal charges for holding his wife hostage to the marriage for over 20 years.
Gorodetzky will spend an additional 15 months in prison and seven months of probation.
Most recently, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, backed a ruling that prevented a man from burying his mother until he granted his wife a get. This man had been holding out on granting his wife a get for 15 years, during which time he remarried; this marriage was from a ruling that that rabbinical courts do not recognize. All the while, his wife remained an Agunah, a “chained” woman unable to remarry.
The issues surrounding men refusing to give their wives a get is nothing new. A quick Google search on the topic will turn up plenty of articles, including reviews of movies that have been made to document struggles of Jewish women fighting for their “freedom.” In 2018 alone, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate issued “156 restraining orders — 117 against men and 39 against women — including orders preventing travel abroad, restricting access to a bank account and revoking a driver’s license” to those who refused to give a get.
According to Michael Stutman, founding partner at New York City based matrimonial law firm, Stutman, Stutman and Lichtenstein, LLP, “this process [of needing a get] is rooted in centuries of religious thought/law…I would not be optimistic of there being changes on the horizon, near or far.”
The law, which was written thousands of years ago, can handicap a woman and prevent her from ever getting married again. Especially in cases where a man goes completely off the grid, just to avoid giving his wife a get.
According to Stutman, in the event a man decides to disappear, “a civil court could provide incentives to the man to resurface and cooperate, like sequestering his assets, restricting his access to his children and the like.”
But ultimately, “unless they [the woman] can obtain some religious dispensation, the absence of the get is fatal.”
The only exception to this rule is if a husband dies prior to giving a get. In such cases, the man “is still married…so it’s like when any other husband dies, the widow has reclaimed her ‘freedom’ and doesn’t need a get.”
New York has a law, “The Domestic Relations Law,” which requires that the Plaintiff – i.e. the one who initiates the divorce – remove all “barriers to remarriage” for the other spouse. (The law itself is not directed towards the Jewish community, but much of it is applicable to challenges Jewish women face with the get process). If the husband refuses to give his wife a get, “a judge will direct a rather onerous ‘alimony’ award that will only be adjusted downward if the wife receives the get. Failure to pay the enhanced alimony is a violation of the court order and can result in the husband being incarcerated,” says Stutman.
While the Jewish laws surrounding divorce are unlikely to ever change, at least not anytime soon, there is hope for the prevention of get abuse in the future. Organizations like ORA (The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) and Get Smart are pushing Jewish couples to marry with a halachic prenup which, according to Get Smart, “contains a financial disincentive to refusing the get: If a person fails to follow the beit din’s ruling, a financial obligation clause goes into effect, currently up to $150 per day ($54,750 per year).”
By incorporating a halachic prenup into marital agreements, a barrier to divorce becomes broken, thus restoring women’s agency and autonomy. Without such contract, accessibility to a get sadly remains limited for some women, leaving wives subject to the will of their husbands and potential abuse.