TEL AVIV: American Jewish agunah gets courts in Tel Aviv to hear her divorce case

American woman to get a rabbinical divorce in Israel: Sometimes, you hear stories about Jewish women and divorce, and you wonder if you are really reading about Muslim women in ultra conservative countries where atrocities like stoning for adultery are still allowed. There are often scary similarities between the extreme end of both these religions, particularly in their treatment of women. Whether it’s Israel, Iran, Afghanistan or Somalia, there are often some scary parallels….

Take for example, this issue of agunot. I’m not even sure that there is a similar thing in the Muslim faith, but this is when a Jewish husband refuses, often out of spite, to give his wife a bill of divorce called a GET. So, in Jewish parlance, the wife is “chained” to the marriage or she is an agunot:

When a husband refuses to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife, she is an agunah–“chained” to the marriage. Were she to marry again without a get (a Jewish bill of divorce), any children she bears would be considered considered mamzerim, meaning they are allowed to marry only other mamzerim or converts.  [see link below for more.]

This is a very serious and traumatic thing, being an agunah.  Sometimes, the only way to get unchained is if the wife agrees to absolve the husband from paying her alimony or child support, otherwise, he threatens to, and often does, take the children away and she never gets to have any relationship with them post-divorce;  and worse, sometimes the wife has to pay her husband thousands of dollars even if she has no money – in order to get “unchained.” It’s a kind of extortion, if you may. And because many women don’t have the means to pay, they remain chained to their husbands indefinitely – even if he is free to marry and have more children with impunity.
Now, to put the whole thing in context, there as a case recently in Israel involving an American woman and her Jewish husband who likewise refused to give her the GET even though he had been ordered by the Beth Din in New  York to do so. So the wife appealed to the courts in Tel Aviv, while her husband was visiting the country. Here’s what happened:

Israel – In an unusual step, an official rabbinic court in Tel Aviv has ordered a United States citizen to remain in Israel for proceedings in a divorce case. The man, who has refused to give his wife a divorce, was detained in Israel following her request; she is also a U.S. citizen.The court order was made possible by a law that allows Jewish women to sue for alimony and child support in Israel – and to enforce sanctions on husbands who refuse to pay – even if they are not Israeli citizens. The law does not allow for the detention of recalcitrant husbands merely because they refuse to give a divorce, but it is quietly understood that if he agrees to grant the divorce, other proceedings against him will usually be dropped.
The case at hand involves a hareidi-religious couple from New York City with one child. The husband and wife have been separated for several years, but the man refuses to grant a Jewish divorce or to pay child support, despite having been ordered to do so by a rabbinic court in New York. The woman has accused her husband of verbal and physical abuse during the course of their marriage, and says she was forced to flee New York due to his threats.

The wife in question was one of the lucky ones. Usually, the courts seem to rule in favor of the husbands in these agunah cases, to the point that it’s become a sort of social crisis both in the U.S. and in Israel. It is amazing how patriarchal and even anti-women many of these laws are.  Jewish law with regard to divorce and family matters, seem to clearly favor men. To wit:

Under Jewish law, a woman is not allowed to remarry until her husband gives her a divorce document (known as a Get). If she enters a new relationship without having received a divorce, the relationship is considered adulterous, and children born will be illegitimate. A man is also forbidden to remarry until his wife accepts a divorce, but if he does remarry, the marriage is not considered Biblically adulterous. Read here for more.

Huh? But it is even more morbid than that, because a wife who is in agunah can not only not get re-married, but if she has children, they are not only illegitimate; it’s almost like they have a mark on their heads. So that they are given a name, mamzerims and these children would be forbidden to marry “Jews.”  Read more here. That is almost like a stigma on these innocent children. That just doesn’t seem fair to the kids. It’s not their fault and why should they be stigmatized like that?
As for the agunot from New York, her case has not yet been finalized. But at least, the rabbinical clerics in Tel Aviv are taking her case seriously and are trying to find a way to give her relief. Good for her but not so good for thousands of others like her who are in the same boat with husbands, turned into monsters, who won’t allow them to move on and get a divorce.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidberkowitz/4550075316/sizes/m/in/photostream/