Can A Woman Initiate Jewish Divorce Proceedings?

Under certain circumstances a woman may request that a Jewish court compel the husband to perform the acts required for a Jewish divorce.

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When Can a Beit Din Coerce a Husband to Participate in the Get Process?

A woman can petition the beit din to coerce the husband to participate in the divorce process in limited circumstances:

1.      Where the husband has a physical condition or occupation that the rabbis deem to make him repulsive to his wife. In mishnaic times, these included a disease or trade that caused the man to have a terrible smell or a skin disease. A woman was entitled to petition for a divorce in these circumstances even if she married the man knowing of these conditions, unless she had explicitly stated before getting married that she was willing to marry him despite the condition.

2.      Where the husband will not provide the wife her marital rights. The ketubah (marriage contract) requires the husband to maintain and support his wife. If he fails to do so, he has violated his contract and the wife can petition for divorce. Similarly, the husband is obligated to provide the wife a certain number of opportunities for sexual activity a month. If he refuses to have sexual intercourse for more than a limited period, the husband has violated his obligations, and his wife can petition for divorce.

3.      The wife claims that her husband is sexually repulsive to her (ma'is alai). The law in this area is very difficult. The original mishnah that introduces this concept contrasts two types of women who refuse to have sex with their husbands: those who merely want to torment their husbands and those who say my husband "is repulsive to me." The mishnah concludes that the latter should not be forced to respond to their husbands' needs, and Rashi expands on this, saying "she is not compelled [to stay married], but he gives her a get." Later authorities, including the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), interpret Rashi as saying the man should give the get, but we cannot force him to do so.

4.      Wife beating. There are widely differing opinions as to whether physical abuse of the wife is grounds for a beit din to compel a divorce. Some rabbis hold that it clearly is sufficient grounds, others that it is not. An intermediate view, best expressed by the Ramo (R Moshe Isserles, premier Ashkenazic authority), holds that certain types of beatings are considered acceptable, for example "if she curses him, or denigrates his father and mother," and he warns her beforehand. However, if he beats her for no ascertainable reason, then she can petition the beit din for a divorce. Interestingly, the Ramo says if it is not clear who is the cause of the altercation between the spouses, we believe the wife's testimony over the husband (Even Haezer 154:15).

What Methods Can Be Used to Compel a Man to Give a Divorce?

The basis for the rules on compelling a get can be found in the Talmud:

"A get given under pressure exerted by a Jewish court is valid, but by a non-Jewish court is invalid. A non-Jewish court may flog a man and say to him 'Do what the Jews command you' [and the get is valid]."

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Viva Hammer

Viva Hammer is a tax attorney in Washington, D.C. She was the co-founder and director of the Wedding Resource Center, which was established with the goal that no Jewish marriage take place without a Marriage Protection Agreement. She has written for The Washingtonian, Lilith, Jewish Action, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and many other places.