In its recent comprehensive study of American Jewry, the Pew Research Center outlined a dramatic decline in Jewish identification in all segments of the religion save one: While Judaism as a whole is disintegrating in the United States, the report revealed, Orthodox Judaism is bucking the trend and flourishing. Numbers aside, however, all is not well in the Orthodox Jewish community, as two current, well-publicized news stories relating to archaic Jewish divorce laws illustrate. Unless Jews get serious about modernizing this primitive set of rules, it is likely future studies like Pew’s will be less rosy for the Orthodox.
Jewish law specifies that only the husband has power to issue a divorce – a “get” in religious parlance. If he refuses to do so, his wife remains in a sort of marital purgatory – she is called an “agunah” (literally meaning “chained”), and cannot remarry. A man can hold the prospect of the get over a woman’s head for years, demanding custody of any children or even a large payment in return for granting her freedom. Or he can never give a get at all if he wishes. The woman has no say.
This patently misogynistic arrangement has been publicized beyond the insular Jewish community on occasion over the years, but never as boldly as on Nov. 4, when an Orthodox woman named Gital Dodelson went public with her agunah horror story in the New York Post. In the article, Ms. Dodelson recounts her marriage at a young age to a man named Avrohom Meir Weiss, who almost from day one of their union allegedly belittled, controlled and verbally abused her. Ms. Dodelson gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son named Aryeh, but just one month later realized she needed to get herself and Aryeh away from Mr. Weiss. The couple quickly settled a civil divorce, but Mr. Weiss refused – and continues to refuse – to issue a get. “I can’t give you a get – how else would I control you?” Ms. Dodelson says Mr. Weiss told her.
Ms. Dodelson’s courageous stand has the Orthodox community, and others, studying what to do about the agunah problem, but few answers appear at hand. Indeed, the predominant response to recalcitrant men employed by the Orthodox community for centuries – literally beating to a bloody pulp non-get-givers – was widely exposed as a brutish, sadistic non-solution in recent weeks: In early October, the FBI raided ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Monsey, N.Y., and Brooklyn, arresting four men – two of them rabbis – allegedly part of an operation that took payment in the tens of thousands of dollars to arrange for assaulting men who refused to grant gets. Their torture methods included “electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place(ing) plastic bags over the heads of husbands,” according to the complaint charge.
Vigilante justice is obviously no remedy, but the Orthodox community has thus far failed to supply another avenue for women to be freed from monsters like Ms. Dodelson’s ex-husband. A prenuptial agreement signed by husband and wife prior to the Jewish wedding ceremony – in which each party agrees to give a get should the union dissolve – is a promising endeavor and has been endorsed by prominent rabbinical leaders in North America and Israel (my wife and I signed it before we were wedded – our rabbi would not have agreed to officiate otherwise). But it is not, technically, binding and the decision whether to grant the get remains in the hands of the Jewish court – the woman still has no say. Moreover, the prenup movement has not received much support in the ultra-Orthodox community, where the bulk of agunah cases, like Ms. Dodelson’s, occur.
Some have argued the only real solution to the agunah problem lies in Jewish women standing up for themselves and demanding equality in their unions. This is a fine idea in principle, but it is near-impossible at present to empower women who have been taught from a young age that their main role is keep house and birth many children. Impressing on these women that there are other options will take time, and, crucially, the inclination of religious leaders, too many of whom seem satisfied with the status quo.
Orthodox rabbinical leaders, in other words, are the key to solving the agunah crisis, and three rabbis, in particular, might be able to get the ball rolling: I’m thinking of Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier, who, in June, became the first women to be ordained as members of the Orthodox clergy. I can think of no better way for them to make their mark on Judaism than to begin the process of modernizing its awful divorce laws and free so many women from agunah torture. If anyone can do it, it stands to reason it will be these three trailblazers.
Yoni Goldstein lives in Toronto. He blogs at Northern Bullets