Episode 83: Fighting for Israel's "Chained Women"
Jen: Hi, it’s Jen Richler, here with another episode of Can We Talk?, from the Jewish Women’s Archive. But first, a word from our sponsor, KOL Foods, the kosher grass-fed meat company. 100-percent woman owned! Whether it’s a turkey, a brisket, or your weekday chicken dinner, KOL Foods delivers the tastiest, healthiest kosher meat you can find. Order at kolfoods.com; that's K-O-L-Foods.com. There’s still time to order your Thanksgiving turkey! Use the coupon code canwetalk for a discount. OK, onto the show.
Please note, this episode includes descriptions of violence.
[Theme music plays]
Jen: Leah’s story starts in a way many women can relate to—she was unhappy in her marriage. For many years, she tried to make it work, hoping things would get better. But they didn’t.
Leah: And at a certain point, I kind of woke up. I just realized that this is only gonna get worse, that whatever I have now, this is—this is it, right? Things aren't gonna change and there is no future to this marriage. And that I have a right to be happy.
Jen: Leah decided she wanted a divorce, and that’s where her story stops being easy for many women to relate to. Because Leah is a Jewish woman living in Israel, where divorce is governed by halakha, or Jewish law. And according to halakha, if a woman wants a divorce, she has to get her husband’s permission, in the form of what’s called a get, a divorce document. And her husband? He can refuse to give it to her.
Leah was worried that her husband would do exactly that. (Leah isn’t her real name, by the way. She asked us to change it to protect her privacy). From the time Leah and her husband had separated, he’d been making things very difficult. He wasn’t paying her child support, and he was fighting her on every detail in their divorce negotiations. It was taking a toll on her kids. She worried the process would drag on for years. So in 2010, out of desperation, she signed an agreement.
Leah: I had to write down—promise—that I would keep my children in religious schools and that I would—I mean, there was some really crazy, crazy things written in the divorce agreement.
Jen: Crazy things like…if she approached the police or civil courts about anything her husband did, without first getting permission from the rabbinical courts, she’d have to pay him a fine of 400,000 shekels—over $100,000. And it was more than sending her kids to religious schools. She also had to promise to live a religious lifestyle—however that was defined by her ex. The rabbinical court, or beit din, which controls Jewish divorce in Israel, signed off on the agreement.
You might be able to guess where this story goes next. Eventually, Leah did contact the police about her ex. She wanted a restraining order because he’d been stalking and harassing her and her boyfriend, the man who later became her husband. He even waited outside her apartment to take pictures of them, to show that she wasn’t living religiously. Leah also filed a request with the police to get the child support payments her ex owed her. He’d made some of the payments for the first year after their divorce, and then stopped. When Leah approached the police, her ex said she had to pay him the fine for violating their divorce agreement—and the beit din agreed.
Leah: And I had been paying lawyers for years and years. He'd been taking me to court for every little thing; I didn't have money. So that's when I went to the Center for Women's Justice.
Jen: The Center for Women’s Justice, or CWJ, is an organization in Israel that legally represents women who are victims of abuse by the rabbinical courts. They argued in Israel’s Supreme Court that the agreement the beit din had signed off on was illegal. Leah never should have been required to give up her access to the courts and police. The court ruled in Leah’s favor. CWJ also fought other rulings from the beit din—that Leah was no longer entitled to child support because she wasn’t living a religious lifestyle, that she couldn’t have men in her home when her kids were there. In all cases, they won.
Leah’s story might have ended well, but it points to a major issue: the way the rabbinical courts in Israel allow, and sometimes even enable, men to control women before, during, and even after a divorce.
[Music fades in]
Jen: According to a recent survey by the Rackman Institute, 1 in 5 Jewish women in Israel who want to get divorced experience get refusal. That figure doesn’t even include the women like Leah, who agree to things that are against their best interests—things that aren’t even legal—because of the threat of get refusal. It also doesn’t include women whose husbands can’t grant them a divorce because they’re mentally or physically incapacitated, or because they’ve gone missing.
Get refusal is an issue in Jewish marriage all over the world. But it’s a particular problem in Israel, where there’s no such thing as civil marriage or divorce. And it’s part of a much bigger issue in Israel, the lack of separation between religion and state.
In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’ll explore how the rabbinical courts in Israel control the divorce process, and how that harms women. We’ll speak with Kylie Eisman-Lifschitz, chair of the board at Mavoi Satum, another organization that fights for the rights of women like Leah. “Mavoi Satum” means “dead end.” That pretty much sums up what it’s like for some Israeli women who want to get a divorce. But organizations like Mavoi Satum and CWJ are opening up new avenues for these women, by working with them one-on-one, but also by fighting for systemic change.
[Music fades out]
Jen: First, a word about terminology. Technically, a woman whose husband won’t grant her a divorce is called a “mesurava get,” which means “a woman who is refused a get.” A woman whose husband can’t grant her a divorce—say, because he’s incapacitated or missing—is called an “agunah,” which means “chained woman.” But in practice, the term agunah is used to refer to a Jewish woman who can’t get a divorce for any reason, and that’s how we’ll be using it here.
Kylie says a lot of people mistakenly think agunot are always observant women.
Kylie: This is one of the big misconceptions: this is only a religious woman's issue. Every single Jewish couple who registers as married and who wants to get divorced has only one avenue to get divorced. And that is through the rabbinic court system, which is run by ultra-Orthodox members of the rabbinic community. And I think even though there are a lot of different avenues in which people can get married—a lot of people go overseas to, you know, Cyprus, to get married, because they don't wanna get married with the rabbinate—but then they come back and they register as married.
Once you're registered as married in Israel, under the state laws, then you have to get divorced through the state and the state basically channels everyone through the rabbinate. And they have basically sole control over this issue. And I often use that as a reminder to people who think, “Well, my husband will never do that to me, he would never refuse a get.” And I say to them, “OK, but you don't know that, God forbid, something would happen to them, they could have, like, an aneurysm and suddenly become incapacitated, and then you're stuck.”
Jen: So, obviously if a woman can't get legally divorced, then she can't legally remarry. But not being able to get a divorce goes beyond that in terms of the ways that it can affect her life and, if there are children, then her children's lives. So can you walk me through that, too?
Kylie: Sure. So, the first thing is, I think that it definitely prevents her from dating again and finding another partner. Any children that she has with another partner outside that marriage are considered mamzerim—they're outside the Jewish community and no one Jewish can marry them for generations, them and their children.
Jen: Until recently, a woman who couldn't get a divorce also effectively couldn't get fertility treatment for any future children. That's because according to Israeli law, that woman had to get permission from her former partner—and it's unlikely the same man who refused to grant her a divorce would allow her to have the treatment.
Get refusal is a particular problem for women whose husbands are abusive.
Kylie: I mean, an abusive husband, what does he say to his wife? “I'll never let you go. I'll never let you marry anybody else, you'll never have children.” And when the woman gets to the court, the rabbinic courts basically say, well, yes, he does have that final say.
So we had, like, a situation just earlier this year with a woman whose husband took her to the forest and cut her up with a box-cutter and left her for dead.
And she dragged herself to safety and recovered and then filed for divorce. And he was refusing to release her, um, from the marriage, from jail. And he was put in jail for attempted murder. And what came out is that his lawyer was advising him not to give the get.
And I think he was hoping to put pressure on his wife not to testify against him. So, you know, she was put in this impossible situation. Do I let the person who tried to kill me go free or do I stay married to him forever?
Jen: I… yeah, that is a really disturbing example.
Kylie: I mean, that’s extreme, but it is exactly the problem, because who are the people who are most likely to take advantage of this kind of power and control? The abusive husbands. Many of the women who suffer from withholding of the get have experienced abuse—emotional, physical, psychological abuse—within the context of the marriage.
So, when you think about domestic violence, essentially, you can help women to leave abusive relationships, but when the state is basically saying, oh, but wait, if you really wanna leave the relationship, you need your abuser’s approval—that's the insane part of the equation.
There's two things here. One is, there's abusive relationships and what can we do about that? And then, there's the second part of the equation, which is, how can we alleviate the pressure on the divorce system? How can we make it something that helps women who are in abusive relations go free and not entraps them in a further cycle of abuse? Uh, state sanctioned abuse, you know, so it's really like a double round of abuse, because the woman goes from being abused by her husband to being abused within a system, which is very patriarchal and doesn't see the woman and her needs.
It's a problem that you have a panel of three men adjudicating the lives of women. It's not just any three men—it's a particular community where women are not regarded as equals. They're not allowed to have a public voice. They're not…they're not seen. So, those people are the ones that the state is putting in charge of every single woman's divorce in the country. And that is the real challenge. It's like, you know, how do we not only address the core issue of husbands’ control over women, but generally men's control over women's lives?
Jen: So that's a good place to turn to Mavoi Satum, which obviously is doing just that—trying to address this problem. Can you tell me a bit about the different ways Mavoi Satum works directly with agunot?
Kylie: So, if we look at the individual level, a woman calls our hotline, we do intake with a social worker who provides her with social support and everything she needs. A lot of these women, like I said, are battered women, or sometimes they're just going through a really, really difficult time and they need the social support, and we match her with a lawyer who takes on her case; or, sometimes, if she has a good lawyer, we'll advise her lawyer,
We get hundreds of women calling our hotline every year and then we basically stay with those cases that really need our representation. And we go through until they get their get. That's what we do on the individual level.
On the public level, we're actually advocating. We take cases to the Supreme Court to try and create precedents for other women. We basically go to the Knesset all the time and we're lobbying Knesset members to pass legislation. At the moment, we have a couple of bills on the table, one of which is called kitzur tahalichim; it's legislation in order to speed up processes.
So, it's essentially saying to the beit din, to the rabbinical courts, OK, you wanna have control over this issue, fine, but you need to make decisions within a limited amount of time. So, you have to make a decision on a woman's get within a year. That basically forces the rabbinate to have those hearings earlier on to make a decision, like, within six months and then make a decision he needs to give a get. And if he's not giving a get, to apply sanctions.
It's a procedural change rather than a substantive change. A substantive change would basically be requiring every single couple who goes through marriage in Israel to sign a prenup, a Halachic prenup, that basically gives the woman the power to execute sanctions against the husband if he doesn't agree to the get. We do a lot of advocacy encouraging women to sign prenups.
And also, you could legislate, you know, that there would be a change to the way marriage is done in Israel, that would protect women, that would have a built-in Halakhic protection that would give the rabbis the power to annul a marriage. And there's many other tools like that that could be used that are not being used by the rabbinate.
The last thing that we're doing is, basically, we're creating movement around this issue for divorce rights, creating greater awareness. Many women in Israel are not aware that there is an issue of any kind with them getting a divorce and the impact that this has for them, for their daughters, for their children, for their friends.
Jen: One of the things you alluded to is that there are ways to find Halakhic solutions to a lot of these divorce cases. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about what kinds of solutions those might be.
Kylie: The kinds of rabbinic, um, Halakhic solutions that can be used are many and varied. In some cases, we saw that the beit din was willing to do hafakat kedoshim, which is basically annulling the marriage, um, retroactively, where there weren't weren't religious witnesses to the marriage, where one of the witnesses was invalidated for very minor reasons. If a witness is considered not kosher, then they use that in a way to invalidate the marriage. And that just shows the kind of rabbi creativity that can be used when they want to.
Jen: Another tool is called “conditional marriage.” Basically, it means that if either member of the couple fails to fulfill the conditions spelled out in the marriage contract, then the beit din has the power to dissolve the marriage.
Kylie: When there's clearly abuse and someone withholding the get in order to, you know, extort somebody or to gain advantage or to just cause pain and suffering, I think that the rabbis should be much more forthcoming in using the tools that they have in order to annul marriages.
Jen: So, it sounds like the rabbinate and the rabbinic courts have been reluctant to apply these Halakhic solutions. Have you seen any change in that over time, any progress in being more open to applying these solutions?
Kylie: Um, so at the moment, I feel it's divided into two.
On the level of, say, prenuptial agreements, I remember when we first were talking about this ten years ago, this was considered beyond the pale and was not at all acceptable. Now, Tzohar, which is part of the rabbinate, now offers their own prenup. So, that's within the system. You can get married through the rabbinate and sign a prenup, but it's a very small percentage of cases. So t's not really being promoted.
And then there's the question of what kind of Halakhic tools are being used within the rabbinate to solve cases that are coming before them now; not, like, at the point of marriage, but at the point of divorce. And there, I think, there is much less responsiveness, much less Halakhic thought being given to how to protect these women than there should be. Everywhere you see innovation, it tends to be squashed pretty quickly.
I think that having women representatives in the rabbinical courts, which is one of the legislative reforms that we're trying to advance, will make a difference. And, I think that once you have a woman's perspective in the court and a woman there, it doesn't guarantee Halakhic solutions, but it guarantees maybe a sensitivity to what's going on there and, you know, whether it's OK or not, and that, basically, women need to be protected.
Jen: Can you say a little bit about the role of the Israeli government in all of this?
Kylie: Um, I mean, this situation is basically enabled and empowered by the state, which is secular. The minute that the state says we've had enough, the rabbinical courts will do everything in their power to stay in control of this issue and will come up with whatever solutions are necessary. So, I think that that's actually the way in which change will ultimately happen. When there's enough pressure on the state to grant equal divorce rights to women, then they'll basically legislate to either remove control from the rabbinate or that the rabbinate has to come up with some kind of solution and that, at the moment, there isn't enough pressure on the rabbi to actually resolve this issue.
Jen: The government can also take steps on its own to give agunot more rights. They did that in 2008 when they amended the Spousal Property Relations Law so that couples can divide their assets even before they’re officially divorced. So, a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get can still move on with her life in other ways. Earlier this year, the Health Minister changed his ministry’s policy to allow agunot to get fertility treatment without their ex-partner’s permission. Both of these changes came after a lot of pressure from groups like Mavoi Satum. Now, with a new, far-right government in power, both have the potential to be reversed.
Kylie thinks lasting change will come when the government responds to public pressure and in turn puts pressure on the rabbinate to change its policies.
Kylie: If the state of Israel says, you need to find a resolution, and the rabbis within Israel come up with a Halachic solution that they’re happy with, that basically protects women, that actually has impact for generations to come and for every woman around the world.
At the moment, the conservatism of the rabbis in the state rabbinate is setting the tone for everywhere in the world. So, any rabbi, even in the [United] States, who comes up with, you know, interesting solutions, gets shut down because the rabbis in Israel kind of determine who's a Jew; they determine all kinds of things that have reverberations around the world. So, I think it's an opportunity as well, like strategically. If you would ask me, am I interested in dismantling the rabbinate? No, I'm much more interested in reforming the rabbinate because I think that if they are able to come up with a Halakhic solution, it will basically cover every woman then.
Jen: Not everyone agrees with this strategy. Here's what Leah said when I asked her about the number one change she wanted to see.
Leah: Get rid of the rabbinate. Get rid of it. The institution is self-serving. It doesn't help anybody with anything. It just causes tremendous distress.
If you like rabbis, that's fine; find a private rabbi. But don't make the rabbinate a civil national institution. It is immoral. It's wrong. Israel is a multicultural country. There are a thousand different shades of how people see themselves as Jews, and they have absolutely no right to define people in the most intimate area of their lives.
Jen: This gets to the core of the debate about how best to reform the system for Jewish divorce in Israel, not to mention all the other things the Orthodox rabbinate controls, like kashrut, conversion, and marriage. There are those who want to work within the system to fix it, and those who want to dismantle it. But even if they have different ideas about solutions, Leah and Kylie agree that the organizations like the Center for Women’s Justice and Mavoi Satum are crucial.
Leah: If women didn't have these people to turn to, I don't even want to think what would happen. If you need to go and appeal a bad judgment, you can't do it on your own. How can you appeal a judgment of a beit din that tells you you can't have your children, that they've decided that you are a prostitute or that you are a drug addict or whatever…whatever the recalcitrant husband will come and claim to them. You're poisoning your children against religion, whatever the claims are. If they make a ruling against you and you want to get that ruling taken down, the only way you can do it is with a lot of money, and the average woman can't afford that.
So, these organizations are tremendous. They see an injustice and they will do whatever they can to correct the injustice.
Jen: They also agree that get refusal is an urgent problem that can and must be solved.
Kylie: I feel like this issue is actually a wonderful social justice issue. It's not something entrenched like, you know, even domestic violence…I don't think you could hope to eradicate it completely; you can combat it. Um, poverty, health issues. There are things that are ongoing, that you're gonna be dealing with for generations, but this issue, it's something that actually could be done in our lifetimes and could then protect generations of women to come from this kind of abuse.
[Theme music starts]
When you think about women's rights and where the main battles are, most people think of it as around domestic violence, around sexual harassment ,and maybe equal pay. But I would say that if you look at women's economic wellbeing and their sense of personal safety and security and their ability to live, everything that they most care about…This is it.
Jen: You can learn more about Mavoi Satum at M-A-V-O-I-S-A-T-U-M.org, and the Center for Women’s Justice at cwj.co.il. And you can learn more about agunot in the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women at jwa.org.
Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Thanks to our sponsor, Kol Foods. Special thanks to Leah for sharing her story and to Rachel Stomel at the Center for Women’s Justice for connecting us with Leah and for offering helpful insights.
Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum and Nahanni Rous. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
You can find Can We Talk? at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts.
I’m Jen Richler…Until next time!