Is the Beth Din really telling agunot not to report crime?

An ultra orthodox man signs a petition at a demonstration for women's rights held outside the Rabbinical court for divorces in Jerusalem on March 19, 2008. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. Via Jewish News
An ultra orthodox man signs a petition at a demonstration for women's rights held outside the Rabbinical court for divorces in Jerusalem on March 19, 2008. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. Via Jewish News

The Federation Beis Din, “recognises that withholding the giving or receiving of a Get is a form of controlling and abusive behaviour”. It “welcomes the fact that this will be recognised as such by the law”. It “condemns anyone who attempts to use the withholding of a Get”. It has “always done its utmost to resolve all cases of recalcitrant spouses” (all quotes from the recent public statement).

And yet, and yet…

“Initiating a criminal prosecution with intent to coerce the recalcitrant spouse … would have the effect that the Beth Din would no longer be able to administer a kosher Get … the Beth Din had no choice but to alert the public that one who goes down this route without consulting a Beth Din first will have tied our hands in assisting further”.  

So guys, or – let’s be accurate about this – girls, it’s all your fault! Your Rabbonim are bursting to get involved and secure your Get. But you’re so intent on stopping them that they have no choice but to tell you not to report this crime. Really, they are the victim here.

If this sounds like reality to you, do feel free to stop reading.

On the assumption that you are part of the majority who feel that if Agunot were mostly men, this problem would have been resolved circa 5685, the Beth Din’s statement needs analysing from three directions. First, why is it wrong in law? Secondly, why threaten the victims? Thirdly, why pick a fight with the government?

The legal error is apparent in the quote. No victim, “initiates a criminal prosecution”. That is done by the Crown Prosecution Service. A complainant alleges a crime. The police investigate. The CPS decides whether or not to prosecute. Had the Beth Din used the words, “Reporting a crime…” it would (one hopes) have clearly seen its error and – one still more profoundly hopes – opted for silence.

What’s more, having set itself a test of intention, how does the Beth Din propose to determine it? In 34 years practice I have come across perhaps 2 cases in which a criminal complaint was made to assist the complainant in an associated matter – in 99.99% of cases, a complainant just wants to stop a criminal. If our wives and daughters are in that 99.99%, there is no problem. The statement shows no recognition of that fact.

Instead, the implicit assumption is that women who are the victim of what this Beth Din admits is controlling and abusive behaviour, are doing something other than trying to prevent a crime. That assumption seems to be based on the straightforward sexism of a period which has, in non-Rabbinic circles, been left behind in favour of a more sensible approach than that “they” all want the same thing, which is to make men’s lives difficult.

In fairness the intent issue is also the get-out (sorry): just announce that the Beth Din cannot establish the required intent and – Rov’s your uncle – there is no difficulty.

I would love to think this escape clause was deliberate, but I don’t. I don’t believe the Beth Din has received (or listened to) proper legal advice. A good lawyer tests their client’s case, and these flaws are so easy to spot that the junior tenant in my chambers (checking my theory as a favour), did so in less than three minutes.

That leads me to postulate that this is about control. If you were really doing your “utmost”, isn’t the involvement of another legal system which takes steps that might assist you, exactly what you would welcome? I don’t say for a minute that the Beth Din doesn’t want to help Agunot: but it seems to me that they want to do so only insofar as they preserve their control over the ways of doing so. For the Beth Din, women’s rights are secondary to its need to control personal status. That is a fundamentalist’s position.

Why pick the fight now? Perhaps desperation. Perhaps to attempt to seize the lead in this particular race to the bottom (the London Beth Din’s frightened response gives this some weight). Perhaps because the Beth Din shrewdly calculates that clause is not so important that the government will fight for it, and are making it easy to say, “the religious leadership tells us we’re not helping, so we’ll do something else”.

Every legal instinct I possess tells me that someone who says, “I desperately want to help stop this awful behaviour, but I don’t want this”, actually doesn’t want to help. A refusal to accept help, coupled with a willingness to misunderstand and misstate the law, seems to me to equal a preparedness to mislead. I don’t want people who behave like that to have any more influence over my life than absolutely necessary. If the Federation Beth Din wants to fight the law, I want the law to win.

About the Author
Simon Myerson QC is a barrister and part-time judge authorised to try allegations of serious sexual crime. He is Chair of Leeds Representative Council and a Trustee of his (orthodox) shul. He has a longstanding interest in the way in which the Jewish community responds to the abuse of women.
Related Topics
Related Posts