Sanctuary for the Abused

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Religious Split
Jewish women abandoned but unable to remarry.


Susan Rosenfeld's marriage wasn't what you'd call romantic. She was thrown up against a wall, doused with a bucket of cold water in bed, and, toward the end, became her husband's punching bag. "Since I wear long sleeves, no one really knew," she says. Looking back, Ms. Rosenfeld regrets keeping the abuse a secret. But "in the Jewish community, you don't call the police on your husband."

In her mid-30s, Ms. Rosenfeld hopes to remarry and build a new life for herself. But as an Orthodox Jew, a civil divorce is not sufficient. For Ms. Rosenfeld to be officially released from her vows, her husband has to grant her a Jewish bill of divorce, called a get. The document, which certifies the termination of the marriage--the Aramaic text declares "you are hereby permitted to marry any man"--not only allows women to remarry, but ensures that future children will not be deemed mamzerim (bastards able to marry only other mamzerim).

Two years have passed and Ariel HaCohen, Ms. Rosenfeld's husband, has refused to grant her the get. This makes Ms. Rosenfeld an aguna--literally, an anchored woman--trapped in a dead marriage.

In the 12th century, a rabbinic court might have sentenced Mr. HaCohen to flogging. While according to Jewish law the get must be given without coercion, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides justified flogging as merely beating the evil inclination out of the recalcitrant husband, reminding him of his own desire to do the right thing.

Procuring a get used to be easier than it is today. Rabbi Mendel Epstein, a legal advocate in New York rabbinic courts, explains that, in 19th-century Europe, if a man refused to comply, the pressures of social ostracism would overwhelm him. "Today, he can just pick himself up and move to another community." Not only was there less mobility in the tight-knit communities, but divorce almost never occurred. Women became agunot most often as a result of husbands who went to gather firewood and never came back.

Today in Israel, where there is no distinction between civil and religious divorce law, advocates estimate that there are 10,000 cases of women refused divorces. But in the U.S., Orthodoxy has no centralized legal body, so the number of agunot is impossible to calculate. But it's clear that the problem is acute: Every advocacy organization I spoke to had a backlog of dozens of cases.

Disputes rage over who can fairly be classified as an aguna, what methods are appropriate when dealing with recalcitrant husbands and, most significantly, when--and if--Orthodox rabbis will reform this broken system. Dr. Susan Aranoff, a prominent advocate on behalf of agunot and a professor of economics at Kingsborough Community College, argues that the refusal to change betrays the spirit of Judaism. "I think in general the Orthodox rabbinate today is insecure and they have a fear of . . . creativity in Jewish law."

There is a way around the get trap: annulment. Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University and a member of the Beit Din of America, one of the largest rabbinic courts, argues that cases where annulment is appropriate are extremely rare, and include sexual incapacity. "The more core the defect is to a marital relationship, the easier it is to prove annulment," says Rabbi Broyde. The challenge is proving that the defect was present at the time of marriage and that "had one party or another known about it, they wouldn't have entered into the marriage," he says.

Ms. Rosenfeld can get her marriage annulled on the grounds that she didn't know about her husband's violent temper when they were married. But few Orthodox men would be willing to date a woman with an annulled marriage. Still, there aren't many other options at this point. Four months of trying to convince the rabbi who performed Ms. Rosenfeld's marriage to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce went nowhere.

Ms. Rosenfeld is more than willing to go to rabbinic court, where a panel of three rabbis would hear the case. She spent months trying to get her husband to appear at such a hearing. But while there are many reputable rabbinic courts, the only one her husband will go to is notorious for allowing extortion. Josh Ross, who heads the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which has held several rallies on behalf of Ms. Rosenfeld, tells me that in these rabbinic courts, "the wife has to give up almost everything she is really entitled to in order to obtain the get."

While Ms. Rosenfeld is held hostage, Mr. HaCohen can go about his life as usual. He can even remarry another woman without giving Ms. Rosenfeld the get, and his children would not be deemed mamzerim.

Ms. Rosenfeld remains committed to God and Judaism: "Even the thought of not eating kosher wouldn't enter into my mind. Because this is who I am." But she has lost faith with the rabbinate: "I can fill the room with hundreds and hundreds of rabbis, who will all say, 'We're so sorry, but there's nothing we can do.' "

Ms. Weiss was a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal this summer.


Hat tip to Josh Waxman

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