Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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Picturing the plight of agunot

How can we explain that Judaism lets men withhold divorce as a kind of weapon, a means of extortion? How long will we tolerate this stain on our religion?
(Courtesy, Shira Pasternak Be'eri)
(Courtesy, Shira Pasternak Be'eri)

Last month, I created a shocking photograph.

I’m not usually a provocateur, but my photography course, part of an initiative that brings together Jewish and Muslim women from adjacent Jerusalem neighborhoods, had tasked us with creating a photograph that would make a statement about a social issue that concerns us. This exercise was intended to enable us to learn about ourselves, each other, and our respective cultures.

The issue that concerned me was agunot, the Hebrew term used to describe women who are chained in marriages because their husbands cannot or will not give them a “get” (a Jewish bill of divorce). These women sometimes remain in perpetual limbo, trapped in dead marriages because of persistent get refusal, while religious courts conduct drawn-out procedures that drag on for years.

The issue of agunot was particularly on my mind because in the weeks leading up to the assignment, agunot had featured prominently in the press. In one report, a 60-year-old woman who has been an aguna for 30 years had been informed by a rabbinical court that she would not receive a get unless she paid her husband a million shekels. In another, it was reported that Shira Isakov’s husband, who was in jail for attempting to murder her in front of their toddler son, was refusing to give her a get. In a third, Liana Hazan’s husband, jailed after slashing her repeatedly with a boxcutter, was refusing to release her from her marriage as well. If there was a social issue that concerned me, this was it.

But how could I depict the plight of agunot? And worse, how could I explain this phenomenon to a group of non-Jewish women? The idea of doing so was uncomfortable for me because depicting an aguna would be showing a dark side of Judaism, and I had always seen myself as an ambassador in our Jewish-Arab group, presenting a religion filled with values, beautiful rituals, acts of kindness, and care in the face of suffering. But despite my unease, I wanted to bring myself fully to the dialogue with my neighbors and to voice an issue that was of real concern to me. I thought that the Muslim women in my group, all religious themselves, might somehow be able to relate to the issue and hoped it might spark a broader discussion about the role of women in our societies. Slowly, an idea started taking shape.

Once I finalized the subject and had an image in my mind’s eye, I recruited my husband to assist. Our living room became a studio, reading lamps were repurposed as set lighting, and black shawls were draped over bookshelves to achieve the desired background. We set to work, with me modeling and directing, and my husband manning the shutter.

The image that emerged from our photo shoot shocked me with its intensity. In the picture, a woman sits, her hair tucked into a silvery turban and her face hidden behind a prayer book. The worn volume has been with her at all the milestones of her life with the man she once loved – her engagement, her marriage, and the birth of her children – and is now with her in her prolonged limbo. The woman’s face is buried in a private space created by the prayer book, and she is deep in worship. Despite her predicament, she clings to her faith, clings to her tradition, and clings to her God, even though her religion is the source of her suffering. As it hides her tears of anger, pain, and confusion, her prayer book is just a bit skewed, because the world is out of kilter, and is waiting to be set right.

The woman’s arms form the center axis of the image. They are bound with her husband’s tefillin – the black leather straps of his phylacteries, which he wraps around his arm during his morning prayers. Although tefillin are traditionally a symbol of a man’s connection with God, these tefillin (which are actually strips of electrical tape) have been distorted and weaponized, trapping the woman in a situation that she does not want to be in. The religion to which she is bound is binding her with no possibility of escape. Her bound arms also echo a common rabbinic response to calls for change that would prevent such situations: “There’s nothing we can do; our hands are tied.”

In the very center of the photograph are the woman’s clenched hands, holding her prayer book. Unlike the raised fist of Rosie the Riveter, these hands are not a symbol of strength, but of tension and failed resistance. They do not proclaim “we can do it” but rather “we can’t” – certainly not without help from others. Some people see a heart in the space between the woman’s curved fingers; if it is there, it is surely broken. Her wedding ring, however, is visible to all, a somber vestige of past commitments.

The faceless aguna in the picture could be any woman – your mother, your sister, your daughter, or friend – and although her modest clothing and prayer book mark her as religiously observant, she could equally be secular, since there is no civil marriage in Israel and all divorce is subject to Jewish law.

It was my husband who came up with the haunting text that accompanies the photograph: “And I will betroth you to me forever.” Recited during the ritual wrapping of tefillin, this verse from Hosea expresses the wearer’s sense of cleaving to God. But in this case, the verse is not a metaphor for a relationship with God; rather, it implies that a man’s betrothal of his wife can literally last forever, even if she no longer wants it.

The word l’olam – forever – is colored in blood red, conveying the chilling implications of being trapped as an aguna. Those familiar with the continuation of the text recited while wrapping tefillin cannot miss the irony of its use in this context: “And I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, and in goodness and mercy. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.” In the case of a chained wife, righteousness, justice, goodness, and mercy are absent from the relationship, and keeping a woman in a dead marriage abetted by religion is not consonant with knowledge of God.

Although I myself had made the image, I found it very disturbing. When I think of photographs depicting Judaism, I conjure up images of beautifully set Seder tables, glowing Chanukah candles, fresh-baked challahs, sacred texts, and people doing acts of kindness. It was unnerving for me to discover that when I think about agunot, my Judaism looks like this.

When the time came to present my photo to my classmates, I explained the symbolism of the woman, the straps, and the chosen text. My Muslim classmates had never heard of wives being kept in marriages against their will. As they told it, in their community both men and women are able to initiate divorce proceedings in the Sharia court, which is done after representatives of the two families try to resolve the issues. Usually, the divorce is granted, but if it isn’t, there’s a safety mechanism: if the couple does not have sexual relations for a year, the court dissolves the union even if one of the partners wants it to continue. I wondered whether the process is really that simple in the Muslim community, and wished that it could be so in mine.

In the weeks following my presentation, I noticed a burst in the use of photographs on social media as part of efforts to free agunot. On both Facebook and Instagram, photos are now being posted to shame get refusers and to generate public pressure on the men who are binding their wives and on the rabbinic courts that are allowing the situation to continue. The photos advocate for women such as Nechama, who has been waiting for a get for seven years, Chava, who has been waiting for 10 years, and Miriam, who has been waiting for 19. They name man after man after man, using hashtags such as #FreeDevorah, #FreeEsther, #FreeElizabeth, and #FreeEvet (who received her get last week, after 17 years of waiting). In a local Israeli campaign, happily married women are seen holding Hebrew signs that say “Release Us,” in support of Liana, the woman whose husband tried to kill her with a boxcutter, picturing themselves as agunot because any woman married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony could potentially find herself chained.

These social media campaigns made me realize that my photo could have a larger role to play, beyond its initial purpose, if it were to join the online protest. Perhaps if my picture of an aguna is seen in my own community, its disturbing imagery might move people who have not been moved by this issue before.

For how can we explain that our religion allows a reality in which a get can be used as a weapon, a bargaining chip, or a means of extortion? How can we explain that women may be forced to forfeit child support, property rights, or custody of their children in order to avoid being in limbo for eternity, or that they sometimes actually have to buy their freedom by paying for a get? How can we explain the fact that multiple pre-nuptial agreements exist (IYIM, Yad LaIsha, CWJ, Tzohar), but that signing a pre-nup is not mandatory, and the Israeli chief rabbinate doesn’t recognize them at all? How is it possible that Orthodox Judaism has developed workarounds that enable us to possess chametz on Passover, charge interest, work the land of Israel during the sabbatical year, carry on Shabbat, and neuter our pets, but rabbis have not been able to band together to come up with an agreed-upon mechanism from among the options available within Jewish law for preventing the plight of agunot?

How can our community tolerate a situation in which women are forced to give up their hopes of new love, a new life, and a new family, and continue to wait, year after year, as their recalcitrant husbands refuse to free them, and rabbinical court proceedings drag on? And why is aguna advocacy generally left to women’s organizations, with men largely uninvolved, as if this stain on our religion is only a women’s issue rather than a human issue that affects us all? (It should be noted that a man can also be trapped in marriage if his wife refuses to accept a get, and while the halakhic implications of this for future relationships and children are less devastating for men than they are for women, this issue also must be addressed.)

I created a shocking photograph about a painful social issue, and then worried about how to explain it to my Muslim neighbors. But ultimately, the question isn’t how to explain the plight of agunot to people outside our community. The real question is: How can we explain the continued plight of agunot to ourselves?

With thanks to my saintly husband, Leonard (Eliezer) Be’eri, who captured me as an aguna for the photo in this blog post and, as always, helped me tell this story in the best way possible.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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