November 25th is the day the world marks the recognition of a destructive force that exists in societies around the globe — violence against women.
As modern society has matured over the last century the understanding has deepened that there are many types of violence, in particular those directed against female life partners. Some are obvious, such as physical or sexual. Some are more difficult for an outsider to discern, such as emotional abuse or financial terror. All these categories of violence have a common aim – control of the woman.
There is one type of violence that is unique to married women in Israel and the greater world of Orthodox Jewry — get-refusal.
Get-refusal is the ultimate form of control that a man can exert over his wife. By cynically exerting his perceived God-given right to divorce his wife solely when he has the will to do so, he can chain the woman to him for a lifetime. The victim of get-refusal is labeled as an agunah – who, according to halakha – is categorized as a married woman. Thus, not only is she not free of the get-refuser, she is bound to him by Jewish law. She cannot rebuild her life, have a relationship with another man or bear children to another. Such children would be labeled mamzerim – unable to marry within the Jewish community.
A get-refuser not only has power over his wife, he has power over the Rabbinical Court, the civil Family Court and if incarcerated – over the Prison Authority. None of these bodies can actually bring about the change in the woman’s personal status unless the husband willingly gives his wife a get.
A most famous case demonstrating this extreme power of the husband is that of get-refuser Avraham Yehiya, as reported by the late Supreme Court Judge, Prof. Menachem Elon. Following the most severe possible ruling of “coercion to give a get” issued by the Rabbinical Court in 1962, the District Court issued an order of incarceration until he would give the get. Avraham Yehiya remained in prison for over thirty years, refusing all the while to divorce his wife, until he finally freed her by dying. The wife was young when the courts ruled he must give her a get but was passed child-bearing years when she finally attained her freedom.
This extreme case demonstrates the helplessness of a victim of get-refusal. This distortion of Jewish law must be corrected in a systemic manner by Rabbinical authorities the world-over, with the responsibility first and foremost lying with the Israeli Rabbinate. However, until that time, in order to eliminate this perverse form of violence against women every couple marrying in an Orthodox ceremony can prevent the trauma of get-refusal if God forbid, divorce becomes necessary (men too can suffer from get-refusal, albeit with a way out). By signing the halakhic prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect in Israel, or the Beth Din of America’s Prenuptial Agreement in the United States – each couple can base their marriage on mutual trust, thus building a healthy family unit.
The pernicious form of violence against women that is get-refusal can be wiped out, if every couple signs it away.