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The missing judges of Israel

Fill the religious court vacancies with justices who will order get-refusers to give a get and sanction all who don’t

When my friend’s husband sat in jail for tax evasion and fraud, he demanded and received glatt kosher meals, regular prayer quorums, and even a daily Torah study class.

For all the years he sat in jail, he refused to give his wife a get. She worked to support their five young children, and even sold what she could to keep them in yeshiva.

Outwardly, this man looked very pious. Beard, payot, kippa, black hat, the works. He played the part and people went along with it, while she suffered. For years.

This was in New York, and he was in jail for financial crimes. In Israel, he could have been jailed for refusing a religious court order to give a get and had similar cushy conditions.

A law (originally submitted by then MK Dov Lipman, now sponsored by MK Shuli Moalem) was passed this week in the Knesset to prevent this. It states that men who are in jail for refusing the Beit Din’s order to give their wives Jewish divorces may not receive glatt kosher meals, and they cannot sit and learn in the Torah wing of the prison.

The value of the law is that it finally legislates what people who advocate for agunot have been saying for so long. Namely: withholding a get (or refusing to accept one) goes against Torah and Judaism and all sense of right. You are not being religious — by definition — if you are keeping someone else chained. You cannot hide behind Torah while making someone else suffer. In a world that is mostly unaware of the scope of the get problem, this is valuable.

The problem with the law is that in practice, very few men are jailed for refusing a Beit Din order to give a get. According to Yad L’Isha, an organization that gives free legal services to women who are being denied a get, the number of men jailed for get-refusal is low, at the time the law was written, 15; at present, seven.

Indeed, the Beit Din has an overwhelming problem of not ordering men to give their wives a get when one is warranted.

A friend of mine from Petach Tikva was abused for years by her husband. Verbally, emotionally, and eventually physically. When she tried to divorce her husband, the Beit Din — who knew of the abuse, saw him flip tables over in the courtroom and scream that he would never let her go — told her she should just pay him off, lest he kill her. They could have, and should have, ordered him to give the get; there were certainly halachic grounds for divorce. If he had refused, they could have jailed him. But they didn’t. Eventually, she did as they suggested, paying him more than $200,000 to be free.

My Petach Tikva friend is an unusual case, but other less violent and volatile men who refuse to give Jewish divorces are no less refusing them. Yet the dayanim (judges) don’t order them to provide the divorce.

This leaves many women chained and with no options, because until the Beit Din orders a man to give his wife a get, she technically does not have the status of a “mesurevet get” (a woman who has been refused a get — what is commonly called an agunah these days) and he is not a sarvan (refuser). Practically speaking, this means that many women, like my friends above are not considered agunot/mesurevet get, nor their husbands refusers, despite years of refusal. This of course means that none of those men would have been eligible for jail or the new sanctions this law provides.

To help agunot — really — we need dayanim who are willing to be creative and courageous, far more willing to order a man to give a get, and to be forceful in finding a solution if he refuses. According to The Center for Women’s Justice, of the official 200 get-refusers (according to the Beit Din’s definition), only 47 have had any sanctions imposed upon them (whether revoking of a driver’s license, prevention from leaving the country to jail, or similar restrictions). The vast majority of of get-refusers (estimated in the thousands) roam free.

It is simply unconscionable that less than 25% of certified refusers have been sanctioned!

We need communal pressure to hold dayanim accountable to do their utmost to free women. We need to say that when a person is refused a get, she or he is an agun/ah. Because by only using the Beit Din’s definition, the problem shrinks from thousands to hundreds, and so people argue that there is no problem. We need dayanim who understand that there is a problem, a big one, and who want to solve it.

And this the Knesset can do.

Currently, there are dayanim waiting to be elected to fill six empty slots on the religious courts. The vacancies have caused a significant backlog in the courts. However, the elections of Appointments Committee have been delayed by the Haredi parties, in order to keep the Religious Zionist candidates from being elected. Unfortunately, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked contributed to the delay earlier this month by enabling the committee to avoid meeting once again. The Haredi parties intend to run down the clock until Dr. Rachel Levmore, a tireless advocate for women, leaves her spot on committee at the end of August, thereby securing a Haredi majority in the committee once more.

If the Knesset wants to make a difference for mesuravot get and agunot, they should force the committee to meet and do their jobs to elect judges — ones who will order more get-refusers to give the get, and sanction those who don’t.

Until the divorce laws in Judaism are made more equitable, we need to work with the system we have. At the very least, we should ensure that the system has the players most knowledgeable and empathetic to make the system work for those who need it.

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of chochmatnashim.org She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at skjaskoll.com
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