Susan Weiss
Susan Weiss
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State-sanctioned ransom and the agunah crisis

The state helps release Jewish women from marital captivity, which prevents most of us from noticing that it put us all in marital captivity to begin with

In 1286, Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg was imprisoned by German authorities. In order to release the rabbi from jail, the German Kaiser demanded a large sum of money as ransom. Rabbi Meir, relying on talmudic sources, directed the Jewish community not to pay the ransom. He argued that paying ransom money would encourage the wrongful imprisonment of other rabbis, entrenching the problem rather than solving it. Rabbi Meir died in jail.

In Israel, the state, acting through state bureaucrats working for the rabbinate and its rabbinic courts, ignores the lesson of Rabbi Meir. Not only does the state support the payment of ransom, it also, at one and the same time, imprisons people, men and women, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally.  

This is how it works: 

The state — intentionally, though figuratively — puts Jewish women into “marital captivity” by requiring them to marry in accordance with Jewish law. There is no civil marriage in Israel, and the only way for Jews to legally marry is via a religious ceremony that adheres to the strictures of Jewish law. Jewish law — and, subsequently, Israeli law — holds that women cannot get out of their marriage without the agreement of their husband, or ba’al (literally, owner or master). If the ba’al demands the payment of ransom for the get-out-of-marital captivity card (the “get”), state bureaucrats will often encourage the payment of ransom – directly or indirectly — to release them. 

Similarly, the state — intentionally, and quite literally, though infrequently — puts some men in jail in order to coerce them to agree to release their wives from marital captivity, whereupon the state will release the imprisoned husbands, again on the husband’s terms, which often includes additional ransom or indignity of some sort, if the husband finally agrees to give the get. 

In both these cases of literal and figurative incarceration, the state perpetuates an infuriating Dr. Suess kind of loop: in again, out again; in again, out again. Captivity, ransom, release; captivity, ransom, release. 

A recent case is a sad, but illuminating, example of this loop. 

Sixteen years ago, an American Jewish man who had married his wife in accordance with Jewish law (marital captivity) abandoned his wife and kids in Israel after his wife had had a stroke. He escaped to New York. For 16 years, the woman pleaded for her get-out-of-marital captivity card, her get. The husband refused. When the husband’s parents came to Israel for a family wedding, state rabbinic judges restrained their right to travel home, keeping them (imprisoned) in the borders of Israel, unable to travel freely, in violation of their basic human right to travel. This, despite the fact that the husband and his parents are neither Israeli citizens nor Israeli residents.

The rabbis eventually put the husband’s father in jail for 30 days (actual incarceration). They also fined the husband’s father so that he owed the state hundreds of thousands of shekels. The Israel Supreme Court upheld the penalties and the restraining orders. (Imagine if a French court had imprisoned an Israeli tourist until his son agreed to divorce his wife and fined him when the son refused). Nothing helped.

Until finally, about one month ago, in order to free the father from his detainment in Israel, the criminal husband agreed to release his wife from her marital captivity with a get in exchange for the following “ransom” demands:  (1) his wife must, at the risk of her health, fly to the United States to receive the get; (2) the state must withdraw the restraining orders on his parents; and (3) the state must waive the fines imposed on his father.  (Note: I have not been able to  confirm the latter condition but  I am willing to bet the rabbinic court on it),   

After receipt of the sought-after get, Director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration Rabbi David Malka announced with great fanfare:

The regional and Supreme Rabbinical Court acted creatively together with the legal advisers of the Rabbinical courts and other legal frameworks [read: the Supreme Court] in order to save the woman from a severe humanitarian crisis.

When understood in context, the announcement is laughable. The state is the very agent that empowered the Supreme Rabbinical Court, its advisers, and the Supreme Court to construct this severe humanitarian crisis. Not the husband nor his father, who simply leveraged it to their own advantage. 

A prominent rabbi also praised the actions of the rabbinic and civil courts in the case at hand, saying:

The case demonstrate(s) how Jewish and civil law could create practical avenues to address the most challenging cases of divorce refusal.

Wrong again. Practical avenues do not address the most challenging cases. Practical solutions are found for a handful of hard cases — which are often high publicity and embarrassing cases — with the consequence of covering up the absurd reality of everyday cases. The state helps to release Jewish women creatively from marital captivity in these challenging cases, thereby preventing the rest of us from noticing that we have all been placed in marital captivity by the state in the first instance.

Attorney Yael Nagar and Rabbinical Courts advocate Moshe Mittelman, who represented the father, accused the rabbinical courts and the Supreme Court of having violated the human rights of the father by detaining him in Israel.

With this, I must sadly agree. 

Instead of standing back and dispassionately defending the human rights of persons who stand before the court, the state Supreme Court joined state rabbinic courts in the dance of obfuscation described here. Instead of deriding a legal regime that places women in marital captivity in violation of their human rights, instead of defending the human right of non-Israeli citizens to travel, instead of protecting the basic rights of persons not to be incarcerated by the state, the Israeli Supreme Court supported the artificial construction of a “ransom” that We the People are paying by giving up our basic rights to be protected by the state from the violation of our civil liberties. In addition, We the People are ignoring the direct and indirect costs to the public to fund and maintain this Kafkaesque reality.

Why all this hoopla? Why all this Dr. Suessian absurdity of in again, out again? Captivity and ransom?

The state — rabbinic courts and Supreme Court — claim a higher goal of keeping the Jewish nature of the state intact. Indeed. While this may be an important goal, it should not, and must not, be done at the expense of the civil liberties of the rest of us — men, women, citizens and foreign visitors. When coming to the rescue of its women citizens held in marital captivity, the state cannot hold all of us ransom. 

Enough. We need civil marriage in Israel, fast, allowing at least those of us who want to avoid marital captivity to do so. Privatize our rabbinic courts and let them compete with a liberal Western regime of marriage and divorce. And if a husband abuses his religious privilege to keep his wife in marital captivity, the state should allow her to sue the bastard for the damages inflicted and award compensation commensurate with the damage of stealing a person’s freedom and dignity. But don’t put the bastard in jail, restrain the travel of his non-Israeli father, or apply a fine that the state has no intention of honoring. 

All this makes a mockery of Israeli democracy, and a farce of its Jewishness.

About the Author
Dr. Susan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center for Women's Justice, an NGO leading the battle to advance the civil and religious liberties of Israeli women when compromised by state institutions..
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