Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Misleading Women About Reality in Rabbinic Courts

So, Oded Guez, who refused his wife a gett (a rabbinic divorce) for years; defied a rabbinic court’s order to give her one (a very rare action from such courts); fled Israel on a fake passport after being fired from his university position and threatened with jail; and evaded justice in several countries as Israel sought his extradition, has returned to Israel and been arrested.

About this, Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, a top rabbinate official dealing with divorce refusal cases, announced:

“The rabbinical courts do not compromise in the battle against gett refusal.”

Goodness. I was raised in an Orthodox home and attended yeshivot from kindergarten to college.

I was taught, don’t lie. And, don’t mislead. It’s right there, in the Torah:

“Do not deal falsely nor lie; do not defraud your neighbor.” And: “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Lev. 19:11, 14).

This guy must be a rabbi in some other religion.

Because this statement is a rank lie. It distorts beyond recognition what goes on in divorce cases in rabbinic courts and worse– leads women to believe that they will get justice or even rational handling there, when the reality is anything but.

The timing of Guez’ return could be linked to the fact that the woman he held in marital captivity for years, whose marriage a rabbinate court annulled, had recently married. Reporting about the Guez case makes the barest mention of how exceedingly rare, virtually unprecedented, it is for rabbinic courts to annul marriages of women kept hostage to the halakhically-established power of their be’alim, their husband-masters, whose exclusive right it is in rabbinic law to grant or withhold a gett. Failing to note this is dangerously misleading, causing women to imagine that rabbis will annul marriages that husbands refuse to dissolve.

How very far from reality this is.

The self-declared rabbinic heroes who freed Guez’ wife and are riding that almost-never done action as if they do it regularly (another lie)–have refused to publish their grounds for annulling that marriage– because they don’t want them used as a precedent to free other women.

 It is easy to focus on criminals like Oded Guez and his sensational case, which the system, including media reporting, encourages us to do while we ignore the root of the problem, which is not men like him but the vast majority of rabbis who handle Jewish divorce cases. They and their courts and the woman-hating law they administer there.

The fundamental problem is not bad husbands, who only do what this system puts in their hands to do; or even bad rabbis, not to minimize the responsibility of either, but who are the expression, not the cause of the problem. The fundamental problem is the use of kinyan and kiddushin as the means to effect Jewish marriage, because this is the source of women being chained in marriages against their will and extorted for their freedom. In kinyan and kiddushin, a man acquires exclusive ownership of a woman’s sexuality and reproductivity. However prettified, it is these actions which enact the marriage, and they are unilateral and exclusively male. That being the case, so is divorce. Iggun is the necessary and inevitable outcome of kinyan and kiddushin.

There are other ways to effect Jewish marriage that do not treat women as sex objects but honor their human and Jewish dignity, and that obviate iggun. See my two-part series on Fresh Ideas site of of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute:…/thinking-outside-the-chains-t…/…/thinking-outside-the-chains-t…/

These articles are based on a longer, forthcoming essay of mine. Even that article, replete with Notes detailing cases in the US and Israel, does not give the full picture of the systematic abuse of women in rabbinic courts, which collude actively with abusive men in gett extortion, stripping women of their assets– apartment, car, savings, and children; of their right to spousal and/or child support; even to court judgments that award such payment in arrears. This is true for rabbinic courts in Israel and the US. On the latter, see Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut, The Wed-Locked Agunot. Not recommended on a full stomach.

For what goes on in rabbinic courts in Israel, see the Facebook pages and websites of the Center for Women’s Justice and Mavoy Satum. Listen to the podcasts of Attorney Nitzan Caspi Shilony  and Rivka Lubitch of the CWJ about the outrages she encounters routinely in the rabbinic courts as she attempts to snare shreds of anything for women who just want to get divorced. Who wish to exercise the right to personal, bodily freedom, which we might imagine is a fundamental, universal human right, guaranteed in law and enforced. Not, however, for women. Not in this system, which is the only one Jews in Israel, whatever their religious affiliation, or lack thereof, can use for divorce, and which ensnares the Orthodox but not only the Orthodox elsewhere, as well.

So very far from being a system that applies the Torah’s injunction, “Justice, justice, pursue” (Deut. 16:20), to women, rabbinic courts are bastions of enshrined male bias. A blatant case in point: Tzviya Gorodetsky tried for over 20 years to get a gett. Rabbis put her baal/master in jail for decades; he, however, maintained his halakhic-manly right to deny another human being freedom. This infuriated the rabbis, not because she was an agunah and lost over twenty years of her life to all this but because they had told him to give her a gett and he refused, defying their authority. Women, whatever; a tragedy, nu, pass the chickpeas. But rabbis? You disrespect us?

Rabbis who, somehow, I wonder what rabbinical school they attended?– never, in all that time, inquired into the technicalities of Tziya’s marriage and discovered that she had bought her own wedding ring, which invalidates the marriage under halakha.

Lowly female that I am, you know, “light minded,” like all women — I know that this invalidated her marriage, and they didn’t?

Or, perhaps, it was that they just didn’t care about her, preferring a decades’ long power struggle with her master? Perhaps male ego and power was, and is, the real interest here? The evidence would seem to support that assertion since, after Nitzan Caspi Shiloni brought the case to Rabbi Daniel Sperber, and he convened his own court, which annulled Tzviya’s marriage, the State’s rabbinical court– you know, the one that heroically pursues justice for women— tried to reinstate Tzviya’s status as an agunah and resume its battle with her baal, because that court was incensed that another rabbinic court had infringed on its turf and freed her. Tzviya was just the occasion for a patriarchal fight to the finish, and now, another court had gone and settled the matter! Twenty-plus years of iggun for a woman, but, not enough for them. It’s the principle, you know. The power of men and their all-important hierarchies. That principle. Which, clearly, overrides the other injunctions, cited above.

How low can these men go? Think, lower. Not only do they behave as they do in their courts, they misrepresent this blatantly to the public.

So, Guez is in jail. Great.

Don’t settle for the momentary distraction of this sensational case, or buy that it is about a man, or men. Ask these rabbis about all the other women they whose lives they ruined today, and yesterday, and will tomorrow.

Posturing as heroes, openly misleading women to imagine there is justice for them in rabbinic courts; enticing new victims, who instead, should rush, before the husband files in a rabbinic court, to Family Court when contemplating divorce, where at least, assets and custody are decided on bases other than gett extortion.

They have no shame. But the rest of us need to know the score they try so hard to keep from us.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.
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