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What Religious Women Want

On Thursday, the Fast of Esther, religious women gathered outside Maasiyahu prison to make a point: Every Jewish woman who marries according the present halachic ceremony acceptable in Orthodox Judaism is a potential prisoner. The current state of Jewish divorce all over the world is a disgrace, and should a husband choose to lock his wife into a marriage she wishes to escape, she might as well be behind bars with a life sentence.

Unlike the popular myth, propagated in religious circles, agunot, or chained women, are not a small handful of special cases, cases in which a husband drowns at sea without witnesses, or disappears into the wilds of Siberia without a trace. An agunah is also a woman who wants a divorce and whose husband refuses to hand one over in the form of a “get,” for reasons ranging from a sincere desire to reconcile, to brutality, vengefulness, or simple greed to extort material possessions and custody arrangements. These women number in the thousands.

The cry outside the prison gates is a cry to the Rabbinical Courts who are entrusted by G-d, and the Torah, and the State of Israel, to see that justice is done, compassion exercised, and the weak protected from the strong.

Below is a heartfelt plea from women, many of whom are deeply committed to the Torah and to Halacha, to the Rabbinical Courts and to the Rabbinic Authorities all over the world, to rise to the challenge of fulfilling their tasks in a way that will bring glory to Hashem’s name, not the opposite. It is a list of basic demands that any ordinary person can see are just, and halachically sound.

It is our hope that Rabbinical Courts all over the world, and in Israel in particular, will take immediate steps to institute these simple and just requests, transforming Jewish Courts into the safest refuge for any woman seeking a just divorce, as was clearly the intention of our Torah and of our Sages.

The following was composed by well-known lawyer and advocate of women’s rights, Susan Weiss, who is Chairperson of Yad L’isha – the Max Morrison Legal Aid Service and Hotline- and adopted by ICAR, (International Coalition for Agunah Rights).

March 4, 2001. The Requests of ICAR to the Rabbinical Courts:

We ask the Courts:

1. To give final decisions on the matters of divorce within one year from the time of filing.

2. To separate decisions concerning divorce from custody, alimony, property division, or monetary issues.

3. Not to participate in, allow, or condone the extortion of women by their husbands in exchange for providing her a get.

4. To utilize fully the sanctions granted the Rabbinical Courts in Israel empowering them to jail recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant a get despite the Courts’ decision that the woman deserves one.

5. To grant a “forced divorce” [chiyuv get] in cases where the woman says “Ma’ous Alay” –i.e. my husband is “objectionable to me.” [note: Maimonidies says a woman may divorce a man for any reason, if she finds him objectionable. This is hardly ever accepted practice in contemporary rabbinic rulings].

6. To grant a forced divorce [chiyuv get] after eighteen months of separation between husband and wife.

7. To annul marriages in the case of “mekach ta’ut.” [note: that is, when the wife was deceived about her mate at the time of marriage. This could mean she was unaware he was a drug addict, homosexual, had a violent temper, frequented prostitutes, or any other situation which would have prevented her from willingly tying the knot. Presently, hardly anyone uses this valid halachic tool, and those who do are vilified. This means a drug addict homosexual wife-beater can presently extort the last penny from a nice Jewish girl, or keep her celibate until she’s eighty. The halachically correct application of the tool of annulment would put an end to this kind of villainy in the name of Torah forever.]

8. Not to make the granting of a religious divorce conditional on the transfer of custody and financial issues from the civil courts to the Rabbinic Courts.

9. To improve the functioning of the special courts for agunot.

10. To improve the functioning of the Rabbinic Courts by:

  • Typing up and recording the protocols [note: you can imagine what goes on if this has to be a demand…!].
  • Justifying court decisions with written, reasoned judgments [Note: right now, all the judges have to do is say Yes or No. No reason.]
  • Holding court hearings consistently between the hours of 9:00-2:00.
  • Insisting all hearings take place in the presence of all three judges.
  • Showing a polite and respectful attitude towards each and every member of the public who comes before it.

We ask that the Judges of Israel, who are the teachers and interpreters of Jewish law, take responsibility for the unbearable condition in which Jewish women asking for a divorce now find themselves. As it is written in Proverbs, [21:13] ‘ He who closes his ears against the cries of the downtrodden, shall also cry himself, but he shall not be answered.’

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