Untying the Knot: The Burden of a Get in Orthodox Marriages
Her husband initially agreed to grant her a “get,” a Jewish divorce decree, but he changed his mind after his relatives said he was being “too generous.”
During the three rounds of rabbinical court-mandated mediation he insisted upon, Devora’s husband escalated his demands.
“He refused to pay any child support and wanted our children’s disability subsidies,” Devora said. She is an Orthodox Israeli mother of five who — like others interviewed for this article — requested a pseudonym, fearing retribution from their spouse.
Devora’s husband also demanded that she help pay off half the debt he accrued without her knowledge or consent. He wanted sole possession of the house, whose down payment had been supplied by her mother.
As much as she desired a fresh start, Devora refused to accept a get tied to these preconditions. “Doing so would basically be selling my soul,” she said, “and I’m not going to sell my soul for my get.”
But Devora may have been running out of time. Her estranged husband was calling himself an agun — a husband chained to a marriage because his wife wouldn’t accept his get — and demanded that the judges issue sanctions against her.
So far, the court hadn’t acted on his demands, but it could do so at any time, those familiar with Israel’s rabbinical court system say.
Sarvaniyot Get: Women Who Refuse to Accept a Get
According to traditional Jewish law, a couple wishing to divorce must dissolve their marriage in a rabbinical court. The divorce isn’t complete until the husband gives his wife a “get” and the wife accepts it.
When a husband refuses to grant a get or the wife refuses to accept one, rabbis, not civil judges, are the final arbiters.
In the vast majority of Jewish divorces involving get refusal, it is the husband who refuses to grant the wife a get. The wife becomes an agunah — a woman forced to remain married against her will.
The phenomenon of female get refusal is rarely discussed, but it does exist.
It is felt most acutely in the Orthodox world, where rabbis do not permit a couple to divorce unless the husband voluntarily offers his wife a get and she voluntarily accepts it. Get refusal cases often drag on for years, leaving both spouses in limbo.
The more liberal Conservative/Masorti Rabbinical Assembly, which deals with divorce cases worldwide, holds that on the very rare occasion that a wife is unwilling to accept a get, the rabbinical court can “accept it on her behalf,” thereby freeing both spouses from the marriage.
“We see a woman refusing to accept a get perhaps once every three or four years,” said Rabbi Pamela Barmash, the St. Louis-based co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards.
Get refusal by either spouse is technically a non-issue for Reform Jews anywhere in the world, because the movement accepts civil divorce as completely dissolving the marriage and permitting the remarriage of the former spouses. In Israel, where there is no civil divorce, non-Orthodox couples do not need a rabbinical divorce because the rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox marriages in the first place. Within the marriages it does recognize, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate claims there are more sarvaniyot get — wives refusing to accept a get — than husbands refusing to grant one.
Organizations that deal with get refusal say that the vast majority of women being accused of get rejection are simply standing up for their rights.
“In probably 95 to 98 percent of the cases we handle, it’s the men refusing to give the get,” said Keshet Starr, executive director of the New York-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA). Other organizations say that percentage is even higher.
From 2012 to 2017 the Israeli rabbinate — which has sole authority over divorce, despite the fact that most divorcing couples aren’t Orthodox — handled 427 cases of female get refusal, compared with 382 cases of male get refusal, the institution’s records show.
These cases represent just a tiny fraction of those handled by the religious court system.
Rabbi Rafi Rechef, a judge of the Israeli national rabbinical court, said a variety of motives fuel female get refusals.
“Sometimes women accuse their husbands of cruelty or abuse, and this is their way of getting back at their husbands for the way they were treated,” Rechef said. “Also, there are women with personal problems, who suffer from mental health issues or fear losing their children.”
In cases like these, Rechef said, the rabbinical court puts them in touch with professionals, including social services, to provide assistance and facilitate the divorce process.
The rabbinate designates a wife as a get refuser “as soon as a woman refuses to accept the get.” Her file remains open “until she accepts the get and we can close the file,” Rechef said.
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, cofounder of Chochmat Nashim, an organization that advocates for women’s rights in the religious sphere, believes the rabbinate’s definition of a get-refusing wife is “patently absurd” and “shameful.”
Jaskoll also takes issue with the rabbinate’s statistics.
“These numbers represent only the few hundred spouses who are refusing to comply with the rabbinical court’s order to divorce their wives or husbands,” Jaskoll said. “It leaves out the thousands of agunot whose husbands are refusing to give them a get but who haven’t been ordered by the rabbinical court to do so.”
In order for a woman to be considered an agunah — whose husband cannot or will not give her a get — a rabbinical court must first order her husband to release her from the marriage.
Often, a rabbinical court is reluctant to do so, citing the halachic prohibition against obtaining a get through coercion.
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, founding academic director of the Rackman Center at Bar Ilan University, calls the Israeli rabbinate’s statistics “a willful attempt to paint men as the victims.”
Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice in Jerusalem, said the “vast majority” of her organization’s clients will do anything to convince their husbands to give them a get.
“We recently helped a woman whose husband demanded that she relinquish her fertilized eggs. At first, she refused. She didn’t want him to have a child with a surrogate, using her eggs.”
Only after the wife agreed to hand over the couple’s embryos did the rabbinical court order her husband to divorce her.
Exceptions to the Rule
Although the overwhelming majority of women of childbearing age are willing to give up their demands to secure a get and custody of their children, older Israeli women may be more reluctant to accept a get because they fear they will be doomed to poverty, Halperin-Kaddari said.
Believing that husbands and wives should be able to support themselves after a divorce, Israeli rabbinical courts do not award alimony to either spouse.
“In those rare cases where women insist on get refusal,” said Halperin-Kaddari, “it would almost always be a woman in her late forties or early fifties or older, who all her life fulfilled the role of the homemaker with very few or no income-generating skills, who simply has no independent way of supporting herself.”
The irony, Halperin-Kaddari said, is that the patriarchal rabbinical court system, which has no female judges, “suddenly channels feminist principals of female earnings equality in the divorce court.”
This is not to say that some wives won’t accept a get due to fears, greed or spite.
Many rabbis who deal with divorcing couples say they know of a handful of cases where the wife refused to accept a get for less than altruistic reasons.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president and yeshiva head of the Ohr Torah Stone Network of institutions in Israel, has encountered get-refusing wives on “a few” occasions.
In one instance, Brander — whose network runs Yad La’isha, a legal aid center for Israeli agunot — signed a heter meah rabanim, a permission to divorce signed by 100 rabbis. This legal loophole enables a husband to divorce his wife without her consent in order to release the husband from the marriage. There is no such loophole for wives.
“This was after the wife refused to accept the get and then ran away with her child to Israel,” Brander said.
Michael, an American divorcee, said he spent several years in rabbinical courts because his now ex-wife rejected the get he offered her.
“She was angry at me for turning into this person who became less religious,” he said, referring to his decision to no longer maintain an Orthodox lifestyle several years into their marriage. “It was extremely painful for her. I’d jumped off the ship we’d sailed together.”
Michael, who requested anonymity to discuss his case, was initially reluctant to speak about his struggle. “I’ve never talked to anybody about it, because there’s something about manhood that makes you reluctant to share your powerlessness,” he said. “It runs against the DNA of male pride. You find yourself very much alone in this situation.”
Michael said the Jewish world “isn’t primed to hear about the difficult situations some men face. The reality is that each spouse can be held hostage by the other.”
Eventually, Michael’s wife agreed to a divorce. Both he and his ex-spouse are happily remarried, he said.
Although Michael never requested a heter meah rabanim, the document can deny a blameless wife the only leverage she has against her husband in a divorce court.
Tamar, an Orthodox woman who lives in a Midwestern U.S. city, was threatened with such a document after her husband abducted the couple’s young children to a European country and hid them, she said.
“He spread lies about me, claiming that I was no longer religious, that I was mentally incompetent, not going to the mikveh,” the ritual bath, Tamar recalled.
The community’s rabbis sided with her husband and insisted she leave the family home. When her husband was forced to return the children to the U.S. under the Hague Convention a year later, he refused to allow her to see them.
He was also engaged to another woman.
“He wanted to give me a get but not deal with things like custody, child support, dividing assets,” Tamar said. “He put me out on the street without a dollar to my name. I didn’t have access to our bank accounts.”
Soon afterward, Tamar learned that her husband was in the process of obtaining a heter meah rabbanim, but that if she immediately accepted a get he would give her a few thousand dollars in accordance with their ketubah, or marriage contract. If she refused, she would receive nothing.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to accept a get. But he threw me out, kidnapped my children, and later, I wasn’t allowed to see them. He refused to give me alimony. The heter meah rabbanim took away that last shred of influence I could wield.”
Tamar’s husband remarried weeks later, despite not having a civil divorce — bigamy under civil law. The government took no action against him. She has since gained visitation rights but not custody of her children.
Divorcing the Get From the Divorce
Rabbi Seth Farber, a congregational rabbi and founder of ITIM, an organization that helps people navigate Israel’s rabbinical court system, has seen both husbands and wives leverage the get to extract concessions from the other.
If it were up to Farber and many other activists, the get and civil issues like custody and the division of property would be dealt with separately.
“The rabbis should make the get a precondition when a couple files for divorce,” Farber said. “The first thing the husband would do is give his wife a get, and she would accept it. It would not be subject to negotiation and not tied to any civil issue.”
For example, he said, “A couple comes into the court. They say, we have two kids. One spouse says I want full custody, the other says I want shared custody. The rabbinical court should say, ‘We’re not discussing this until the husband hands over the get and the woman accepts it.’”
Removing the get as a leverage tool “would free both women and men from unwanted marriages and make it far more difficult to extort the other spouse,” Farber said. “That’s the ideal solution.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.