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.
From this passage, the rule is derived that where a woman is entitled to a divorce under the causes discussed above, a Jewish court can apply any kind of pressure whatsoever to force the husband to grant the get. However, if a non-Jewish court applies pressure on the man, it must be at the behest of the Jewish court; otherwise the get will be invalid. In Israel today, where the Jewish court system can issue a judgment and bring the penal power of the state to enforce it, men have been imprisoned for failing to grant their wives a divorce--but only rarely.
If the woman does not have sufficient grounds for the beit din to be permitted to pressure the husband to divorce her, what can be done to encourage the husband to grant the get? Jewish law defines two categories of coercion: coercion using "sticks," which would invalidate a get, and coercion using "words," which is permissible. "Sticks" includes physical violence against the husband, imprisoning him, and issuing a communal ban (herem) against him. Whether causing him monetary loss comes under this category is debated. Coercion with words includes pressuring him through an unrelated issue or withholding assistance he requests (but is not entitled to).
The rabbinic example of coercion with words involves a husband who is in debtor's prison, and his wife wants a divorce but does not have sufficient grounds for the beit din to be permitted to coerce him. However, her family offers to pay off his debts on the condition that he grant a divorce. If the reason he is imprisoned is unconnected with the divorce, the family's offer to free him on condition of the get is considered permissible coercion. There is a controversy as to whether serious communal sanctions, e.g., refusing to do business with the husband or not burying his relatives, falls under the "coercion with words" category.
The 1983 New York Get Law permits a judge in a civil court to withhold granting a civil divorce until the party filing for divorce removes all barriers to remarriage (e.g., the get). A get given under these circumstances is valid because the civil divorce is not a right, but rather a privilege that is be bestowed at the discretion of the State. Withholding such a secular privilege does not in any way violate a man's personhood or property as defined under Jewish law.
But, it should be stressed that if the coercion used by the beit din, or the secular courts at the behest of the beit din, is not effective to force the husband to participate in the get process, the beit din itself can do nothing. Only the man can do the acts required for a valid Jewish divorce; the Jewish court has no more power to declare a man divorced against his will than it does to declare a man married against his will.
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