Since I can write about anything I want in this column, this week I’ve chosen to tell a tale of two sisters-in-law, Jere and Shifra Finer of Baltimore and Monsey. Why should an Israeli columnist in an Israeli paper be writing about two Americans? Simple. To show that the abusive and immoral treatment of religious women at the hands of the religious establishment and community isn’t an Israeli original. It’s as American as frozen gefilte fish.
Jere Finer, a religious woman from Baltimore, writes me the following: “My sister–in-law Shifra and I divorced two abusive brothers. Our treatment at the hands of the rabbis and the community has been horrendous. For example, her husband has not yet given her a ‘get’ (religious divorce) yet is openly living with another supposedly ‘religious’ woman and her six children, who now wear his own children’s clothing and play with their toys. Since this woman’s children and his own go to the same school, his little eight-year old is constantly taunted by this other child. No one in the religious community does anything about it.”
When the alleged abuse began, Shifra asked the rabbi of the local yeshiva what to do, and he told her to move out with her children, but not to take any money. At the beginning of the separation, a rabbi decided child support payments that were so inadequate it left her dependent on charity to feed her children. Also, as both women only found out later, a woman who leaves her husband forfeits her marriage settlement, about $10,000 – $15,000. This is the kind of information rabbis know, and women don’t.
Shifra’s apartment building is full of such abused haredi women who followed this rabbinical advice.
Despite charges of paternal child abuse, a rabbi decided on joint custody, forcing children ages 2-8 to spend every two nights in a different bed. While the Beit Din ordered her husband to give her a ‘get’, her husband refused. No sanctions were imposed on him. Fed up, penniless, abandoned by the community and the Rabbinic courts, Shifra went to civil court.
There she finally received some semblance of justice, including increased temporary child support, child custody, and supervised visitation for her husband. Incensed at her chutzpah, the Beit Din is now circulating a letter to the effect that Shifra is a traitor for going to civil court, and her poor husband should be helped in any way possible.
Jere has been an agunah for four years. Despite her husband’s considerable financial resources, she and her three children were dependent on charity for food. She too finally went to the civil court to force some kind of financial settlement. The Beit Din in Baltimore put her in cherem (a form of shunning) for it.
As Jere writes: “All I know is that I have to live in this world and that takes money. Tuition for day schools is $30,000 a year alone. Thankfully, these schools, run by open-minded Orthodox Jews, have been very kind to me. One is taking very little tuition and the other gave me a job — the highest form of tzeddakah. I want to gather all the stories of women and write a book. I keep hearing about what a desecration of G-d’s name it will be, but isn’t all the abuse that’s going on a greater desecration? I went to rabbis for years for help but none was given. The religious world hides behind Halacha to avoid taking care of its problems. Believe me, I would have rather done this from within the community, but it can’t be done. I will take my chances with Hashem since my motives are pure — to help other women in this situation.
I became observant when I was 12 and I am now 39. What I have seen over the years is a great decline within the Orthodox world. Not in numbers , but rather the essence of what Torah is. I don’t think being arrogant about cholov yisroel (cow milk processed by Jews — a kashrut stringency) or putting a baby girl in tights in the summer for modesty is what it’s all about. How we behave towards each other is.”
A thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershon decided that the divine law permitting polygamy would hold Jews up to disgrace in the world, which no longer permitted it. He changed the biblical law to prevent that. Isn’t there another great Rabbi who can rise to the challenge of our age, changing the biblical law that permits Jewish men to hold their wives hostage, to oppress and extort and abuse them by withholding their “get?” Is there no one to sanctify the name of G-d and his Torah by ridding the Jewish community of this foul disgrace, this crime that goes against every moral law our Torah stands for, and exhorts us to fulfill? Is there no one to make the concept of the agunah a terrible crime of the past? No one to stop the civil courts becoming a refuge of oppressed women fleeing the disgraceful injustices of the rabbinical courts? Out of all the great gedolim, admorim, and Torah scholars, all the men and boys who are learning, and learning, and learning…
Is there no one to stand up and be a man where there are no men? As we light our Chanukah candles, can we all not pray for yet another Jewish victory of the weak over the strong, the oppressed over their oppressors?