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Shining a spotlight on agunot: What the Oscar-winning film can teach us about get-refusal

The Church scandal depicted in the Oscar winning film echoes the Jewish community's failure to rescue agunot

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Although I’m chronically behind in my movie-watching, the other night I finally sat down to see Spotlight, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. While the film chronicles an investigation into abuse within the Catholic Church in Boston, as I watched, I couldn’t help but notice the many insights it offers into my work with agunot, women unable to receive a Jewish divorce from their spouses. So, what on earth could the Spotlight story have to do with agunot, religious divorce and Jewish communities?

Spiritual Abuse

First, the film highlights a particular form of abuse that is powerfully damaging: spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is loosely defined by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen as abuse administered under the guise of religion, “with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing [the victim]’s spiritual empowerment:” Spotlight highlights one tragic story after another in which a young pre-teen, often living in poverty in a broken home, is targeted by a local priest. The priest would visit the family under the guise of offering homework help, support and a respite for the busy mother. Quickly, this “quality time” would cross all boundaries of propriety and turn into horrific episodes of abuse. As the film discusses, being abused in the context of a person’s faith adds a heartbreaking dimension to a victim’s suffering.

Agunot, too, are victims of spiritual abuse. In a case of get-refusal, a recalcitrant spouse turns what should be a simple religious ceremony that hopefully offers some closure to the couple into a fierce, potent weapon. Spouses denied a get (typically women, but they can be men as well in some cases) suffer heightened trauma because the source of their anguish is coming not only from their ex-partner, but, in some ways, from their faith itself. Instead of being able to turn to the Jewish community and Torah teachings for comfort, they are left asking why their faith is being used against them, and why the community they love and trusted is now excusing their ex’s behavior. One of the reasons we need to combat get-refusal is that it fundamentally demeans the essence of the Torah, turning a tradition based on respecting the dignity of each person, especially those closest to us, into a weapon that causes pain to the most vulnerable.

Abusers and Their Allies

The power of the Spotlight story is that not only were the film’s journalists fighting against abusers and the ecclesiastical system that protected them, but they were also attempting to bring the story to light against the will of the many allies of the Church. Those allies complicated matters over and over again. They attended community events and gala dinners and pressured the journalists to keep silent; they used their positions as judges and government officials to ensure records were sealed or destroyed altogether; they argued that the Church should not be called to account for its “little problem” because of all the good it was doing. It was those allies, spread throughout the city of Boston, that had worked to hide the story for many years, and fought to keep it hidden now. Without them, the molestation cases would have been exposed much earlier. Through their activism or complicit silence, these allies actively contributed to the Church’s abuse and ultimately allowed it to happen. As one character comments insightfully, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

As a professional advocate on behalf of agunot, I know that the unfortunate reality is that get-refusers, as well, have all too many allies. From parents and friends, to even rabbis and community leaders, the average get-refuser is surrounded by a circle of supporters, and it is their strength, encouragement and, often, direct financial support, that allows the recalcitrant spouse to maintain the stamina to abuse his wife for so long. Our community needs to turn to these allies of abusers and inform them that they will no longer be welcome in our homes and shuls unless their inappropriate behavior stops. As Lundy Bancroft urges in his book, Why Does He Do That? focusing on allies is a critical strategy in combating abuse. “If we can erode the ability of abusers to gain allies, then they will stand alone, and alone they are easier to stop.” Allies of get-refusers are not just supporting their family member or maintaining a friendship: They are active participants in a horrific form of domestic abuse that maligns our core Jewish values. And they need to stop.

Why We Need to Face Our Problems

A fundamental theme in Spotlight is how to address issues within a community of faith: Do we “air our dirty laundry” and let the public know that there is, indeed, trouble in paradise? Or do we keep things swept under the proverbial rug, hoping that the problem will go away on its own and that no one will notice? The scandal of the Catholic Church in Boston is a powerful example of the danger of following Model #2. Abuse and other problems exist in every community, and they will be there whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. Moreover, secrecy is a powerful tool for exacerbating abuse and allowing it to claim more and more victims.

In the Orthodox community, there have been lengthy discussions as to the danger of publicizing our issues. “But isn’t it a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) to talk about get-refusal?” people will ask. “How can you tell the world about the agunah issue?!” is a frequent comment on any of ORA’s media coverage. Of course, it can be embarrassing and anxiety-inducing to have to explain to the wider community the tragic state of agunot. But the lesson Spotlight teaches so powerfully is that hiding our problems never, ever, makes them better — only worse. Or in other words, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Communities are judged not by the problems they face, but by how they choose to face those problems.

Yes, we have an issue in our community. Yes, it’s difficult to discuss. But I’m asking you to do it anyway. Because abuse is like a bacteria that thrives in the dark: give it stigma and secrecy, and it will flourish; shine a light on it, and you will see it begin to disintegrate before your eyes.

Taking a Stand

The good news is, you don’t have to be an investigative journalist or an agunah advocate to combat abuse in our community. By (1) recognizing the harm of get-refusal, (2) calling out allies of abusive recalcitrant spouses, and (3) being willing to talk about this issue in your social and professional communities, you are already part of the solution.

With a little courage and lot of light, we can face our problems head-on–and change our community for the better.

About the Author
Keshet Starr is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), the only nonprofit organization addressing the agunah (Jewish divorce refusal) crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide. At ORA, Keshet oversees advocacy, early intervention, and educational initiatives designed to assist individuals seeking a Jewish divorce, and advocates for the elimination of abuse in the Jewish divorce process. Keshet has written for outlets such as the Times of Israel, The Forward, Haaretz, and academic publications, and frequently presents on issues related to Jewish divorce, domestic abuse, and the intersection between civil and religious divorce processes. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Keshet lives in central New Jersey with her husband and three young children.
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