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The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline
The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline
The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline
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No Exit

No Exit :

Jerusalem organizations are working to ease the plight of “agunot”,
women denied divorce.

-- by Gail Lichtman

In Jerusalem Magazine, January 7, 2000.

At the age of 21, Leah (not her real name) was introduced to a charming man, 10 years her senior, an engineer in one the defense industries in the Haifa area. After a whirlwind courtship, they married.

The cracks in their marriage started not long afterwards, but the real crisis came following the birth of their baby. Leah's husband became increasingly demanding of her attention, even to the point of being jealous of the time she devoted to their daughter. He moved very quickly from verbal to physical abuse. Leah took it all until the day he hit the baby.

Leah wanted her husband out of the apartment. But these were the days before domestic violence was a matter of public consciousness. She had no real evidence; he had never beaten her to the point that she needed medical attention. And she had been ashamed to tell anyone. Her lawyer advised her that if she moved out of the apartment, she could lose her rights to it.

At their first appearance before the rabbinical court, her well-dressed, well-educated husband denied all her charges of abuse and asked for shalom bayit (reconciliation). The dayanim (judges of the rabbinical court) heeded his request. Leah's lawyer said that if she did not comply and return to live with her husband, she could be declared a "rebellious wife" and could risk forfeiting all her rights, including custody of her daughter.

So she continued to live in the same apartment with him, where her greatest fear was no longer for herself, but for her daughter.

A year later, Leah was still living with her husband, having been unsuccessful at convincing the rabbinical courts that her marriage was irretrievably over. She had hired a private detective to tape the foul-languaged, threatening phone calls with which her husband harassed her at work, in the hope that these tapes would convince the dayanim that shalom bayit was out of the question.

Leah's story is one of scores in the netherworld of agunot – women chained against their wills to dead marriages.

Technically, according to the Halacha, an aguna is a Jewish woman whose husband has disappeared and whose whereabouts are unknown. The rabbinical courts in Israel know of only 15 such cases.

Today, it is common to use this term to apply to mesuravot get, Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, a Jewish bill of divorce, which, in Israel, means that they cannot divorce. The rabbinical courts claim that there are only about 200 such women in the country and that this number is constantly changing as some women obtain their divorces while new mesuravot get join their numbers.

Activists in the field hotly dispute these figures. Since the rabbinical courts do not keep statistics concerning mesuravot get, there is no way to know the exact figures. Mevo Satum, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping alleviate the plight of women denied religious divorces by their husbands, estimates that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of agunot living in Israel today.

The organization notes that in 1997 alone, nearly 700 women were sent to the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, specially created for women whose cases were open for more than two years in the regional rabbinical courts and had not been resolved.

"You have to add to this women whose cases have been opened for less than two years but are being denied divorces, women who simply have given up, and women whose husbands have successfully argued that they want shalom bayit," says Mevo Satum coordinator Elana Sztokman.

Sharon Shenhav, director of the International Jewish Women's Human Rights Watch, a joint project of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the International Council for Jewish Women, estimates that there are between 5,000 to 15,000 women in Israel who are what she terms 'modern-day agunot.' Some of these women having been waiting more than 10 years for divorce. Mevo Satum has a handful of such cases.

Yad L'Isha - the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to agunot and operates a hotline on divorce, has one outstanding case of 13 years, followed by cases of nine and 10 years duration. "There are women who have called our hotline who claim that they have been agunot for more than 20 years," says Susan Weiss, a Jerusalem attorney and director of Yad L'Isha.


ACCORDING to the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law, passed by the Knesset in 1952, the rabbinical courts have sole judicial power to make decisions with respect to issues of marriage and divorce for Jews living in Israel.

Under halakha, only the husband can initiate the get. A husband cannot be forced to divorce his wife, and a get which is not given of a husband's free will is void. A woman whose husband refuses to give her a get can find herself in a world of legal, physical, psychological and emotional limbo. She is neither married nor divorced. She cannot remarry. Any children she has with another man are considered bastards (mamzerim) and are outcasts from Jewish society. She is not entitled to grants for single parents, such as rental subsidies and childcare assistance.

Men who refuse to give their wives divorces do not live with the same restrictions. They have a number of acceptable halakhic outlets, including taking a second wife without divorcing the first. "Every year, the chief rabbis sign 20 to 25 cases enabling men to take second wives," notes Shenhav. "When I worked at Na'amat, we had a case where the husband would only concede to the get if his wife gave up all her rights to the apartment. She refused and he was allowed to take a second wife. "The man claimed that he wanted to fulfill the mitzva of procreation and since he had only daughters with his first wife, he had not fulfilled this mitzva. His first wife was 56 years old and could no longer bear children, so he was permitted a second wife."

In addition, a man can father children with another woman and these children will not bear the stigma of mamzerim. And finally, younger women seeking divorce are in a race against their biological clocks. If the husband holds out for 10 or 15 years, this may preclude the woman from ever having children.

But activists in the field are all quick to point out that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "the fault is not in the Halakha but in ourselves." "We who work in the field, feel that what is going on is a real hilul Hashem (desecration of the Holy Name)," says Judith Garson Djemal of Mevo Satum. "What we are seeing is not Judaism but bureaucratic insensitivity."

"The problem is not with Jewish law," remarks Shenhav. "Jewish law should be a beacon of justice. Jewish law was not intended to be a tool of injustice, to allow greedy, vindictive men to deny their wives freedom."

"In some ways, Jewish law is one of the most progressive legal systems with respect to divorce," Weiss adds. "Halakha allows for divorce by consent. If the parties agree, they can be divorced without waiting any time at all. A great majority of divorces in Israel are by mutual consent. The problems arise when there is no agreement or when the terms demanded by a party to procure agreement are unreasonable or unconscionable or even extortionist."

The lion's share of the blame for the plight of agunot, say the leaders of these organizations, is at the door of the rabbinical courts and the rabbinical establishment. They say that the religious system is based on the husband's free-will consent to a divorce. Domestic violence is often ignored if a man says he wants shalom bayit. And the process in the rabbinical courts is arcane: hearings in the court are not transcribed; the court's explanations of its decisions are not forthcoming; the judges are untrained in civil law and do not have a secular education; and the courts very seldom use their newly legislated power to impose sanctions against husbands who refuse to grant a divorce.

Still, in recent years the rabbinical courts, under the leadership of general director Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, have taken a number of significant steps towards alleviating the situation (see box).

Domestic Violence

According to Jewish sources, violence in and of itself is not grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, the sources do not condone violence, Shenhav says. "Because of shalom bayit, Jewish women stay in abusive marriages twice as long as non-Jewish women. They have traditionally been made to think that if they were better wives, things would improve. So, they shoulder the blame and keep quiet, trying to do better. Only in the last decade have Jewish women begun to say no."

At Mevo Satum, 96% of those who come to the organization for help are abused women. "We live with the myth of the Jewish family, where abuse does not exist," Sztokman adds. "We had one woman who came to us and said that she finally realized it wasn't anything that she was doing, only when she woke up to find her husband beating her in her sleep."

Since May 1999, the rabbinical courts have the power to issue protective orders, forbidding violent husbands from coming near their wives. To date, very few such orders have been issued by the rabbinical courts. On the other hand, three to four protective orders are issued daily by the civil courts.

Weiss recalls a case where the wife claimed that her husband had raped her, hit her and slept with another woman. The Jerusalem Rabbinical Court believed the wife and ordered the husband to give her a divorce. The husband appealed and the decision was reversed. The High Rabbinical Court held that Jewish law required the court to "warn" the husband that hitting his wife and sleeping with other women were grounds for an order to give his wife a get. "Today, I do not believe that the High Court would issue such a decision," Weiss maintains. "Yad L'Isha has been successful in convincing the rabbinical courts to order husbands to give their wives a get even on the grounds of emotional abuse or desertion."

The Process

The way in which the rabbinical courts operate also can prove an impediment to divorce. For one thing, there are no formal, verbatim protocols. The rabbinical courts use a scribe instead of tapes, who summarizes proceedings.

"Not everything that transpires in the courtroom is written down," states R., an activist who has asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize her work with the courts. "If the husband or his lawyer have influence, three quarters of what transpires can be left out of the final protocol. It is not like civil court where everything has to be transcribed. There are no rules and there is complete disorder."

R. tells of a case where a woman's nose was broken by her husband in the rabbinical court and the incident was omitted from the protocol. "What goes into the protocol is very subjective," Shenhav notes. "It is not actual testimony and it cannot be appealed." Also, the decisions issued by the courts are often three lines long with no explanation upon what grounds they are based.

"This is a major problem," Shenhav continues. "Since you do not know upon what the decisions are based, you cannot argue or appeal them." The rabbinical courts do not publish their decisions. "We have reports on individual cases but no overall picture," says Shenhav. "Therefore, it is impossible to make accurate statements about what is going on. A system which operates in secret is anti-democratic," says Shenhav. As for the judges themselves, many of them have no training in civil law and no secular education. "They have no training in psychology, economics, consumerism, childhood development, etc. Yet they are being called upon to decide child custody, child support, etc. Is it any wonder that the money awarded for maintenance and child support in the rabbinical courts is consistently lower than that awarded by the civil courts? I have seen cases resolved where the wife was awarded NIS 500 a month for herself and her four children, when the husband earns NIS 20,000 a month."

Pressure to Settle

The husband may say he is willing to give his wife a get, but that he just objects to her terms, Weiss says. The rabbinical court may encourage the woman to give in to her husband's demands for the children or marital property, or to waiver child support in return for the get.

R. goes as far as to accuse the rabbinical courts of collusion. In one case, as the parties neared settlement, the husband suddenly demanded an additional $15,000 from his wife. The rabbinical court said it would ok NIS 15,000. When the wife said she could not afford it, the court said it had a fund from which it would pay NIS 5,000 of the sum to help her settle. "The court could have applied sanctions on this man," she states, "but instead it became a party to extortion, and the woman was helpless."

Civil Courts

When it comes to the equitable division of property, activists say, even the civil courts are biased in favor of the man. Civil law states that in cases where the couple was married after 1974, the wife can sue for the balance of resources only upon dissolution of the marriage.

"Here, too, the family courts give an unfair advantage to men who refuse to give their wives a get," Weiss explains. "Many family courts interpret the 1974 Marital Property Relations Law as not allowing the courts to divide marital property until the end of the
marriage - i.e. until the husband gives his wife a get. A man can refuse to give his wife a get, thereby legally preventing her from receiving her half of the marital property, still registered in his name. Rather than enter into a difficult battle in both the rabbinical and civil courts, many women will waiver or compromise their rights to marital property (like pension benefits) in exchange for the get," explains Weiss.


In 1995, the Knesset passed a law at the behest of the nation's women's organizations expanding the powers of the rabbinical courts to enforce decisions. Under this law, if a husband refuses to give his wife a get, the courts can take away his driver's license, freeze his bank accounts, prevent him from leaving the country, suspend any professional licenses he may have, and even put him in prison. In Tel Aviv, the court used this power only four times from 1995 to January 1998. It has been used only 106 times in the whole country during this period, and has achieved the desired goal - divorce - in 43 cases.

Shenhav explained the power of community sanctions as demonstrated by a recent case in London. The religious community organized a boycott of a kosher restaurant owned by a man whose son was reluctant to give his wife a get. The rabbinical authorities also refused to renew the kashrut certificate of the restaurant as long as the get was not given. Eventually, the man gave his wife the get.

"This kind of community sanctions would be quite applicable here," Shenhav claims.

Weiss maintains that her clients often have to quantify the monetary value of their freedom. "Women have to make terrible decisions. If she is 30 years old, can she afford to wait five or 10 years for a get? Should she be willing to pay $100,000 to end it all while she still has a chance to remarry and have children?"

Possible Solutions

The rabbinical courts have established the special High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem with dayanim trained to deal with the difficult cases from around the country and there are plans for a similar court in Tel Aviv. Some courageous rabbis, such as Emmanuel Rackman, rector of Bar-Ilan University, have come forward with creative solutions.

In fact, there have been a number of creative solutions proposed to ease the situation. One of these is a prenuptial agreement, which provides financial incentive for the husband to give a get.

Another solution is freeing women by annulment, for which Rackman has set up the New York Bet Din in the US. His court has freed more than 280 agunot. His initiative has not received the support of the majority of the Orthodox community. However, a recent decision by the New York Bet Din to annul the marriage of a 37-year-old woman was accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Yet another suggestion is conditional nuptials. The basic idea is that the couple marry on condition that the marriage is good as long as they live together, but if they separate and the husband refuses to give a get, it is annulled. Here too, the mainstream Orthodox response has been cool.

But the very fact that their are now organizations helping agunot and that creative ideas are being bandied about shows a new willingness to solve this blight. Women rabbinical court pleaders and organizations such as Mevo Satum and Yad L'Isha are helping many women to receive their gets. And the demand of the growing numbers of learned Orthodox women for solutions is slowing forcing change.

"They are very organized and vociferous. The explosion of Orthodox learning for women has created a group of women who know the sources and can challenge the dayanim on their interpretations," says Shenhav. "The momentum created by women's groups is very encouraging. I am hopeful that with their pressure, the support of creative and sympathetic rabbis, and the increasingly forthcoming cooperation of the rabbinical courts, we can find lasting solutions to the problem of the aguna, not only for individual women but also for our daughters," says Weiss.

Box 1: The Rabbinate Responds

In his 10 years as general director of the rabbinical courts in Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan is credited for having instituted a number of measures to improve the functioning of the courts, including keeping better statistics, typing of decisions and introduction of computers. He was a moving force behind the decision to establish the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, an important step towards resolving difficult divorce cases.

What is the difference between an aguna and a mesorevet get and how serious is the problem of these women in Israel?

Ben-Dahan: According to the Halakha, an aguna is a woman whose husband has disappeared and his whereabouts are unknown. Today, it is common to add to this women whose husbands have fled abroad and there is no possibility to make them give a get. We know of 15 women in this category. But just five or six years ago, there were 450. We have worked very hard to solve this problem, hiring private detectives who searched for these men the world over.

A mesorevet get is woman in whose case the rabbinical courts have ruled that her husband has to give her a get and he doesn't give it. We are talking about between 200 to 300 such women nationwide. These are 200 cases out of 17,000 new divorce cases opened every year. Relatively, this is not very many. Also, remember that when I say 200, it is not all the time the same 200 women. Some cases are settled and new
cases are added. This is a dynamic system.

Are there women waiting 10 or more years to receive a get?

I don't know of any women waiting 10 or more years. Give me their names and I will check. You know, a woman came to me recently and said she has been waiting 27 years for a get. I started to check and discovered that 27 years ago, she opened a file in the rabbinical courts. There was one hearing. Since then, neither she nor her husband appeared in the courts. Then, after 27 years, she comes and asks, 'What happened? Why haven't I received a divorce?' It is very easy to throw out numbers. But you have to check each case. In most cases, the wife and the husband agreed to shalom bayit and the file was closed.

I can state that there are no cases where the rabbinical courts have determined that the husband must give a get, and he doesn't, that continue very long after that. Especially today, when there is the Sanctions Law, which enables us to deprive husbands who refuse to give a get of their civil rights.

How often have the rabbinical courts used these sanctions?

We have used sanctions, including jail, in more than 200 cases since 1995.

What other measures have the rabbinical courts taken to help deal with difficult cases?

The establishment of the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, whose only function is to deal with difficult cases, has helped to alleviate the problem. In addition, we now have social workers and other special workers who sit with difficult cases and try to see what can be done in order to find a solution. In May 1999, we received the power to issue protective orders.

What about problems with protocol and lack of explanations with decisions?

True, the rabbinical court protocol is not always word for word what was said. But it is more or less so. Unlike the civil court, our clerk does not write down every word. Our clerk writes the protocol as a summary. Today, most of the protocols are typed and not handwritten. We have no intention of changing to word for word. In general, there is no need for this. In special cases, we bring in a company that records every word of the proceedings. But in most cases, what our scribes write is enough. As for decisions issued without the explanations behind them, there have been cases like these. But the court legally must give its reasoning. This is not always done immediately along with the decision. Sometimes the court thinks it is more important to give a quick decision and issues the reasoning later. But in every case, in the end, the reasoning behind the decision must be provided. I don't know of any case where someone asked for the reasoning and the court did not provide it.

What steps are you considering in the future?

We are working on measures for dealing with men already in prison. We have some 20 cases of husbands who are in prison for offenses unrelated to the get. These men could care less about rabbinical sanctions if they persist in not giving their wives a get.

We have proposed a law, which already has passed its first reading, that will enable us to worsen their conditions in prison if they refuse to give a get. This would include depriving them of visits, of going to the canteen and even putting them in isolation. This may seem extreme but someone who refuses to give his wife a divorce is an extreme case.

We need to improve the hours of the rabbinical courts, expanding them so that we will be able to invest more time in solving difficult cases. I would also like to change the court building in Jerusalem. I think the current building is too small for our needs. And we are trying to set up an additional High Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv to deal with problematic cases. -G.L.

Box 2: Hope on the Horizon
The picture vis-a-vis agunot is not entirely bleak. A number of organizations and breakthroughs in the 90s are helping more women to receive their divorces in shorter time periods and with more dignity.

One breakthrough has been the creation of the Monica Dennis Goldberg School for Women Rabbinical Advocates at Midreshet Lindenbaum, under the auspices of the Ohr Torah Stone network, based in Efrat.

Launched in 1990, the three-year program trains women to plead cases before the religious courts. More than 55 women have been accredited and an additional 20 are studying in the program. Their impact on the rabbinical courts has been significant.

At Yad L'Isha - the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Women, founded in September 1997, under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Ohr Torah Stone, these advocates provide free legal aid to agunot, as well as an information hotline on divorce. Its work is funded by private donations.

"Female rabbinical court pleaders are halakhic activists for the rights of Jewish women," states Susan Weiss, founder and director of Yad L'Isha. "Our advocates are well versed in all the nuances of Jewish law which allows them to argue before the rabbinical courts in a creative, decisive and powerful manner."

The hotline deals with hundreds of women annually, referring them to appropriate counselors, lawyers, psychologists and social workers. With respect to legal representation, Yad L'Isha represents only agunot. The organization's definition of an aguna is any woman who is living apart from her husband for a significant period of time and whose husband refuses to give her a get.

"To date, we have gone to court with scores of women. Many cases have been resolved and we get the hardest cases. Our policy is to continue petitioning the rabbinical courts and any other person or institution who will help our client until she has her get," says Weiss.

Nurit (not her real name) spent 27 years living with an abusive husband. Two years ago, she filed for divorce and a year ago, she was referred to Yad L'Isha. "The first time I went to the rabbinical court, I went alone," she says. "I thought I didn't need a lawyer and besides, I couldn't afford one. Without my advocate, my case would have slipped between the cracks."

Nurit's husband has a long history of violence. A number of complaints were lodged against him and two years ago, he was tried and convicted, with Nurit's children serving as witnesses. Nevertheless, when he requested shalom bayit, the rabbinical court granted his request.

The advocate from Yad L'Isha helped Nurit prove grounds for divorce and the rabbinical court recently ordered her husband to divorce her. He still refuses to do so but Nurit is confident that Yad L'Isha will help her to obtain sanctions - and her get.

Jerusalem-based Mevo Satum, founded in 1996 by Leah Ain Globe, is another organization working with agunot. The organization's top priority is to help fund women's legal fees. It also organizes support groups and workshops on empowerment, and has a unique "melavot" program which links an aguna with a specially-trained volunteer who accompanies the aguna to court and through her divorce. In addition, Mevo Satum serves as a resource center for referrals, assists children of agunot and helps women in extreme financial difficulty. -G.L.

To contact the Yad L’isha Max Morrison Legal Aid Center, call the hotline at: 02-671-0876.

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