Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

On Women, Gett, Counting Time, and “About Time”

Omer is the period between Passover and Shavuot during which we literally, count the days.

Originally, a time of joy, it has been overlaid with sadness and semi-mourning since a plague decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva, in the second century, CE. His yeshiva was the Yale and Harvard of its time. We will never know what Torah we lost.

We live now with the awareness of the loss then; we re-enact it. Indeed, it is not “then,” it is now. We do this a lot; as the highest commandment. Just a few weeks ago we proclaimed that we see ourselves, not “them,” as having been redeemed from Egypt, and that it is imperative for Jews to do this. Time, as we construe it, makes us what we are. We make time, and it makes us. Jewish time “oozes,” undulates between the zones of mere history.

But our time is also– temporal. Our lives are bounded by time. We each get what we get; no one knows how much it will be, ultimately. No might, no money, can buy more. Time is infinitely precious. We may leapfrog over centuries, millennia, and “live” what we did not personally experience. But, Proust notwithstanding, we cannot ever get back time lost.

A debate is taking place on online sites, and around tables, in study halls, on vacation trips, about gett, halachic divorce. One opinion has stated that women outside of Israel have options those in Israel do not, since Diaspora women can avail themselves of non-Orthodox options as well as civil divorce, and move on.

While factually correct, it is unrealistic and unfair to say that Orthodox women, socialized from birth in that world, who have internalized its norms, live in its society and know nothing else, who are in bad enough shape, emotionally and socially as separated or divorced without being marginalized further– that such women “choose” to remain agunot (“anchored” in dead marriages)– since they could just– stop being Orthodox. That is: stop being who they are; disregard the fact that their marriages, contracted halachically, have not been terminated halachically; that they “just” re-marry and perhaps have children, when everything they know tells them that doing so would put them in adulterous unions and make any children from the union mamzerim (stigmatized outcasts).

I know: my mother, z”l, was one of these women. She began trying to get a gett when I was 12. She was the sole survivor of her family. She raised two children in a religious home in the best sense of the word, and though impoverished, sent us to yeshiva, kept kosher, shabbes. To daven next to her is a lesson before me always. When I was in college, I determined that if it was the last thing I did, I would get her  a gett. I went to many, many rabbis, what an education that was–including among the most prominent in NY. One, her community rabbi, who was very well placed politically– and make no mistake, this is political, that is, about power, who has it and who does not, and therefore, can be abused– did not shake heaven and earth. He did not say, as I did, I will not rest until this wrong is righted. One horrible day, I called him from my university to hear, yet again, that he had done nothing. To this, I cried, hillul hashem!– to which he replied, quoting me the case of a woman in upstate NY who had gotten a civil divorce but not a gett and had gone on to remarry– that my mother could do the same: my mother, whose piety he knew, she was his congregant, who would not carry a handkerchief outside her apartment on shabbes. It was a cynical, revolting response.

My mother, z”l, never got a gett. When my father z”l died– he, too, was a battered immigrant from a traumatized past– she sat shiva for him and buried him in Israel. He was mentally ill– quite competent to give a gett, but paranoid; his wife asking for release did not go well with the illness. She understood that– and did not blame him.Tragedy all around. And utterly preventable. I came back to my mother time and again, with reports of failure to get her release. She said to me once, Shulamis, if it is up to him, it will never happen. There has to be another way.

The proposition that Orthodox women in the Diaspora have options women in Israel don’t puts the onus on women, the victims of this system, when it is the system that must be the object of fundamental revision. Not tinkering. Not reform. Not amelioration. And absolutely, no more hand wringing, and no more impotent cries of “tragic!” But no more waiting, either, for “them” to fix it. How marriage is contracted halachically, which is what gives rise to the maccah (plague) of how it is dissolved halachically, is fundamentally flawed and must be fundamentally redrawn. With women at the table this time. At the head of the table. The quills in their hands.

Is this more realistic to ask of Orthodox women than to take the issue outside of halacha altogether, or to “jump denominations” and use options elaborated in other Jewish movements? Psychologically, sociologically, yes, I believe it is.

It is wrong to pit women who live in the Diaspora against those who live in Israel. Both are victims, and all are potential victims under this system.

The system must be replaced by one in which marriage partners are equals, period, and neither can withhold divorce from the other, for any reason. Women should not be asked to become religious orphans, shorn of their communities and all they know, in order to get justice, to marry, and to divorce, in a rational manner that respects their tselem elokim, the divine image in which all are created.

The custom during omer is to suspend marriages and other voluntary celebrations in semi-mourning for tragedies past. How fitting if this time were used now, to do tikkun that will prevent utterly preventable tragedies, present and future, and redeem Torah from the disgrace of the current system. “And Miriam, the prophet, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went forth with her.”

“There has to be another way,” she said.

That was decades ago.

Shoyn zeit.

About time.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book, the first history of agunot and iggun across the map of Jewish history, with a critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals for fundamental change to end this abuse, is entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun." She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. She opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel and end the site's status as a "national holy site," awarding it instead, to the haredi establishment. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.