Using the Power of Shaming for Good

The term “shaming” is integral to the vocabulary of the Facebook and Twitter generation. In this age of smartphones, the Town Square has been replaced by a virtual space in which one’s individual influence is, at all times, a finger click away. Following mostly negative incidents that have publicized the phenomenon of shaming – which has led to severe consequences and even loss of life – it seems web-surfers are slowly finding the way to channel the power they have into positive arenas, such as fighting the injustices with which they are faced.

In Israel, after successful online battles against traffic offenders, racists, and companies that harm small consumers, last week shaming proved its strength against one of the more difficult phenomena our society must deal with: sarvanut get – the refusal to grant a Jewish divorce. A great commotion broke out on Facebook after a post told the story of a man from Gush Etzion who was refusing to grant his wife a divorce, making her an aguna — a woman who is literally “anchored,” chained to her marriage and therefore unable to start a new life.

A few hours after the post was published, the internet overflowed with comments which were mostly against the husband and his family, which had purportedly supported him in his actions. Like joined like; share was heaped upon share in what can only be referred to as a modern interpretation of the power which was, in days of old, reserved only for the couple’s community.

Since ancient times, the Sages of Israel have written about the distress of women whose husbands refused to grant them a divorce, providing alternative suggestions through which to obtain the husband’s consent. In doing so, they recognized the power of the public and its influence, knowing that the courts can make use of this power to change the recalcitrant husband’s mind without resorting to force [which is not allowed since, under Jewish law, the divorce must be given to the woman out of the husband’s free will and not under duress]. Rabbeinu Tam, one of the great Tosafist medieval rabbis, stated that although one must not force the husband, one may place an obligation on the public and on the authorities to avoid any sort of contact with that man until he has granted his wife the divorce.

This sanction is known and recognized under the name “Rabeinu Tam’s harchakot”, meaning the exclusions of Rabbeinu Tam, including a community’s requirement to “not do him any favors, not to conduct business with him, not to circumcise or even bury his children, until he divorces his wife.” Rabbi Moshe Isserles added: “The beit din can be stringent in applying these sanctions in whatever manner they see fit.”

The main purpose of the exclusions is that even when there are no grounds for the beit din to issue a writ of compulsion (“chiyyuv“), the husband’s social surroundings can be counted on to assist. The directive is not to actively harm the husband, but rather to use a passive approach, such as avoiding social interaction with him; thus there is no force involved and when the get is delivered, it is not considered “get meusa” – an invalid divorce which was given under duress.

The modern version of Rabbeinu Tam’s exclusions is expressed in Israeli legislature through which the Rabbinical courts may issue sanctions against a recalcitrant husband, preventing him from using credit cards, renewing a driver’s license or passport, holding a job in public office, leaving the country and more. But in the state of Israel, as we know, the wheels of justice turn slowly. Often, many years pass before the Rabbinical Court decides to issue a judgement requiring that a divorce be granted and even more before they issue sanctions against the husband.

We, as a society, are responsible for filling that gap. We must use every tool at our disposal and make every effort to assist chained women to receive their get.

About the Author
Osnat is a rabbinical court advocate and attorney who serves as director of Yad L'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network.
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