At 1:30 a.m. a few days ago, my neighbor, a single mother of four, was finally granted a get and is now able to move on with her life. For three years she was an agunah, a woman “chained” to a marriage that is over. She was a victim of getabuse, the deliberate withholding of a Jewish divorce. As the director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI), I have worked with both men and women who are victims of this unique form of domestic abuse. To be able to say “mazel tov” to my neighbor was truly gratifying.
The day before Purim, which marks the fast of Esther, has been designated as National Agunah Day. Get abuse affects women from every affiliation and background, as women seek a Jewish divorce for both personal and religious reasons. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, one cannot remarry without a get. Withholding a get is a violation of Jewish law, but while a rabbinic court can issue a summons to a recalcitrant spouse, it has little power to enforce its rulings. We have seen the devastating effects of get abuse on women and children in the Boston area and throughout the Jewish world. Secular courts, in past divorce hearings, have deemed get abuse a controlling behavior.
On our educational website, getyourget.com, we receive and respond to questions about Jewish divorce. This was a recent question that came our way:
“My ex-husband left me with over $500,000 in unpaid income taxes which I did not know about. He left the country and lives in Israel. I was left with the children and had to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. We were granted a civil divorce in 2009. Now he wants me to pay him $25,000 for him to give me a get. What can I do? I want to be re-married in a Jewish ceremony. Where can I turn?”
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a Taskforce member and rabbinical judge at the Boston Rabbinical Court, was able to respond within 24 hours and offer support, education, and tailored advice. The feedback we receive from the women we help online, those we help in person at the Boston Rabbinical Court, and others around the country inspires us to continue to work on behalf of both men and women who are suffering from get abuse.
The Agunah Taskforce at the HBI has contributed much to the conversation around Get abuse and solutions that can work. In addition to research and scholarship on the issue, the Taskforce hosted “A Case Study Conference on Solutions to the Agunah Problem” in May, 2017 to bring together lawyers, rabbis, scholars and activists to work through proposed remedies from a civil and halakhic perspective. One result is the launch of a new solution, GetReady, which can help couples avoid get abuse by adding a clause to their civil divorce agreements requiring get compliance. The draft language we are recommending was created by our advisory team of legal scholars, lawyers, and rabbis and we have seen it work in several cases in the Boston area. Within the Orthodox community, the most comprehensive solution thus far is the halachic prenup requiring get compliance, which is effective if signed before the marriage. However, the vast majority of Jewish couples do not sign it.
The Taskforce is also working with the Muslim community. The withholding of a religious divorce affects both Muslim and Jewish women. Working with religious leaders and lawyers in the Muslim community, the Taskforce will be making recommendations to State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), on legislative action to help assure women the right to a religious divorce in Massachusetts.
As we mark International Agunah Day, the day before Purim, we are reminded of the power of individuals to stand up for the values they believe in and to fight injustice. Queen Vashti and Queen Esther were feminists before such a word existed, refusing to be content with roles that diminished their light. Jewish women suffering from get abuse need our support, and our community needs to work together until better solutions are found.
If you know of someone considering divorce, please encourage them to visit getyourget.com and to ask a question or learn more about GetReady. The ability to begin again and create a life of meaning is a central tenet of a spiritual life. A get can be a healing form of closure and it should never be denied.