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To Break the Chains:A dramatization raises funds for Advocates to help women free themselves from bad marriages.
By Julie Gruenbaum Fax,
Religion Editor, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Hollywood met Jerusalem this Mother's Day, when the tennis court at the north Beverly Hills home of bestselling authors Jonathan and Faye Kellerman was transformed into a Tel Aviv rabbinic court hearing the ugly details of a divorce gone awry.
Three rabbis sat in judgment, 200 spectators vied for spots in the
shade and a pair of advocates - the stars of the show - presented the halachic
and personal arguments of Levy v. Levy.
Nowhere is this role more important than in cases of agunah, where the husband is withholding a writ of divorce out of malice or to extort financial or custodial concessions from his wife. Under Jewish law, the husband must willingly agree to issue the get, the bill of divorce, without which she cannot remarry. The term agunah means "chained woman." The case presented last Sunday was rife with the kind of details seen in so many of these cases: physical and sexual abuse, emotional torment, financial control, infidelity and rabbinic insensitivity that causes cases to drag out for years.
The rare view into the proceedings powerfully demonstrated why a female
advocate is so necessary for the wife to have a fair trial. Aside from researching
and presenting the opinions in the corpus of halachic literature that protect
women, the toenet, in Sunday's case Avigayil Rock, is more likely able to
elicit and present all the emotion-laden details - often sexual - that can
help a case.
Ohr Torah Stone is currently embarked on a $15 million capital campaign to finance a new campus. Sunday's fundraiser also aimed at getting supporters to sponsor a toenet at $12,000 a year. John Fishel and Todd Morgan accepted an award for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which was the first Federation to sponsor a toenet. A toenet studies for 3 years, then must pass a rigorous exam administered by the rabbinate.
Riskin believes the toanot will help alleviate some of the agunah problem - arguably the most vexing controversy before the halachic community today. His advocates have succeeded in procuring 100 bills of divorce in problem cases. Still, he wants to see things go further. In the past few months, Riskin has begun to present a halachic solution calling for annulment in a case in which the husband refuses to grant a divorce and in which he is behaving so negatively that the rabbinic authorities can determine that his actions take him out of the realm of kedat Moshe vi'yisrael, conduct "according to the laws of Moses and Israel."
Riskin contends that the formula, uttered under the chuppah, makes the community and the rabbis partners in the relationship. Citing Talmudic precedents based on this reasoning, Riskin says the rabbinic authorities can declare the marriage invalid. It is a controversial position, but Riskin says he has begun to garner rabbinic support. He hopes more rabbis will come forward. "God must give courage and strength to rabbinic judges," Riskin said, using a verse from Psalms to illustrate his vision of justice. "God will bless his nation with peace and will make certain that women are no longer chained to impossible relationships."
To contact the Yad L’isha Max Morrison Legal Aid Center, call the hotline at: 02-671-0876.