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Will rabbinical court’s systemic indifference be rectified?

When a couple approaches the rabbinical court to divorce, and the rabbis let years pass instead of expediting proceedings, they are not doing their jobs
(courtesy of Mavoi Satum)

Tomorrow, a couple will appear before the rabbinical court for the eighth time in more than three years. The woman, we’ll call her Rachel, is hopeful that this time her husband will give her a document of divorce (get), as he has promised he would in every previous hearing.

Three and a half years ago Rachel’s husband left her, moved all of his things out of their shared home, and told her he wanted a divorce.

For more than three years, over the course of seven different court appearances, Rachel’s husband repeatedly assured the rabbinical judges that he wanted to give his wife a get, but told them that he preferred to wait, providing different explanations for this preference in every hearing.

For more than three years, he appeared before the rabbinical judges and claimed that he was more than willing to give Rachel a get, but never actually agreed to grant her one.

For more than three years, the rabbinical courts didn’t take any action to help Rachel, didn’t call her husband a get-refuser (sarvan get), didn’t even discuss whether or not they could obligate him in giving Rachel a get.

Instead, they consistently sent Rachel home and told her to wait, patiently.

Once, after their shared home had been foreclosed, Rachel’s husband stood up in the rabbinical court and told the rabbinical judges that he was willing to forego his share of the house if she would agree to excuse him from his obligation to pay child support. If she accepted this deal, he said, he would give her a get on the spot. When Rachel tried to explain to the rabbinical court that the house no longer belonged to either of them, the rabbinical judges ended the hearing telling her once again to negotiate with her husband outside of the court because it sounded like a good deal to them.

The rabbinical court continuously failed to take action simply because Rachel’s husband repeatedly assured the rabbinical judges that he would give Rachel a get at the next court hearing.

A month ago, Batya Cohen, a lawyer from Mavoi Satum, an organization which provides legal and psychological support to women whose husbands refuse to give them gittin, began representing Rachel. At last month’s hearing, the husband failed to appear before the court. On Monday, there will be another hearing. This hearing is taking place during the summer break of the rabbinical courts, a time when only urgent cases appear before the court. It appears that, at long last, the court understands the gravity of the situation and is repenting for its previous mishandling of the case.

Yet how is it possible that Rachel’s husband still has not been officially called a sarvan get by the rabbinical court? How could the rabbinical judges have trusted that a man who consistently lied in the rabbinical court would truly give his wife a get after over three years of implicit refusal? How did the rabbinical court allow this situation to continue for three and a half long years without taking any action to move the case forward?

It seems that in the rabbinical courts the most important thing is to honor the husband’s desire — even at the wife’s expense. Although they have the tools to obligate the husband to give his wife a get, the rabbinical judges prefer to oversee divorces where the husband gives a get of his own free will, no matter the cost. It’s true that according to Jewish law (halacha), it is preferable for the husband to give a get of his own free will. But, there are other halachic tools available to the rabbinical court allowing them to obligate men to give their wives gittin. As such, it’s unjustifiable for the rabbinical judges to hide behind halacha and refuse to use the latter option when women are suffering. In Rachel’s case, the rabbinical court repeatedly ignored Rachel’s husband’s manipulative behavior in order to preserve his apparent willingness to give her a get rather than using their power as a rabbinical court to obligate him to do so.

It is concerning that the rabbinical court only began to take action on Rachel’s behalf once a knowledgeable lawyer pressured them to do so. The rabbinical court should feel a responsibility towards women disempowered by a patriarchal interpretation of halacha in addition to the responsibility they clearly feel towards their fellow men. According to Jewish tradition, it is imperative to ensure that Jewish women do not remain trapped in marriages that practically are dead. By turning a blind eye to the manipulation Rachel endured at the hands of her husband, the rabbinical judges failed on multiple counts.

For more than three years, Rachel has been suffering both at the hands of a manipulative husband and at the hands of a complacent rabbinical court. Rachel is still waiting for a divorce. Hopefully on Monday, the rabbinical court will use their considerable power and influence for good and Rachel’s husband will finally do what he’s been promising for over three years and give her a get.

About the Author
Malka Himelhoch is a rising Junior at Princeton University and is interning this summer at Mavoi Satum.
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