There Are No Chained Men

In the context of Jewish divorce, there are no chained men. Why?

In the context of Jewish divorce, there are no chained men.

Why? Unlike a civil divorce, a get (Jewish writ of divorce) is largely in one direction – husband to wife. According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once a husband voluntarily gives a get to his wife, and the wife accepts the get. If the get is not willingly given, the wife is still bound to her husband. The wife cannot remarry; any new relationship, without a get, is considered adultery. Moreover, any children from a new relationship are considered illegitimate under Jewish law. Such children may be excluded from marrying into portions of the Jewish community. Women refused a get are called agunot, chained women.

The husband, however, has a remedy if the wife refuses to accept the get. The husband can receive a heter meah rabbanim, permission of 100 rabbis to remarry. Once the husband receives permission to remarry, he is required to deposit a get with the Jewish court, which the wife may claim if she desires. It should be noted that a heter meah rabbanim is not easily available today, as responsible Jewish courts will not utilize this option. Nevertheless, it is a viable option that does exist for men. Women, on the other hand, do not have this option. The husband is therefore not chained to a dead marriage in the same way that a wife may be chained.

We need to not only view get refusal from a religious perspective; it is not just a religious issue. We need to start seeing it for what it is — domestic violence. Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior used to gain and maintain power and control over the other person in a relationship. Domestic violence is more than physical violence; it also includes emotional, verbal, spiritual, sexual or economic abuse. These are all ways one partner can intimidate and exert power over the other.

Why would a husband refuse to give his wife a get? There are many reasons, which range from spite, to not feeling the marriage is over, to feeling there is something to gain from withholding the get. All these reasons are focused on the husband using the power and control he has to keep the wife from moving forward. The wife is essentially up against the wall; she is completely restrained.

Typically, women suffer years of domestic violence before finding the courage and/or the means to leave their abusers. In the case of a Jewish woman, even when she leaves her husband, he can continue to exert his control through his refusal to give her a get. Get refusal is the ultimate form of abuse because he still has power over her after she has left.

Due to the deep power imbalance inherent in the granting of the get, women can be placed at an unfair disadvantage in divorce negotiations. The husband can withhold the get to extort concessions from the wife. For example, the husband might say he will only grant a get if the wife agrees to give up financial support and marital property, pay him a large sum of money, or even surrender custody of their children to the husband.

Agunot are stuck, with no escape route. While nobody but the husband can grant the wife a get, as a community at large, we need to recognize that this is not a private matter and we must rally around the wife to offer support and advocate on her behalf. We should acknowledge the principle that regardless of the rationale the husband gives for his refusal, when the marriage is over, the get should be given. Unfortunately, it is the women, the agunot, who are stigmatized, and not the men who refuse to grant a get. It is important for us to shift the paradigm to place the stigma where it should be: with the abusers who refuse to give a get. We must not accept the perpetuation of power and control.

It is true that often times we do not want to get involved in the relationships of others; we feel it is none of our business. But in this case, that is not true. It is our obligation to care for others, as we are all made “b’tzelem elokim,” in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Further, the prophet Isaiah urged his people to “[u]phold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Just as the widow and orphan are vulnerable, so too are chained women.

It is worth noting that not every husband who refuses to give a get abused his wife during the marriage. However, the dynamics of get refusal involve controlling the wife’s life, which is analogous to the dynamics of domestic violence. As a society, we are beginning to recognize that domestic violence is harmful behavior that the public must reject as unacceptable under any circumstances. Recently, we have been seeing an outcry against professional athletes for their abusive behavior towards their partners. The unfortunate reality is that it is easier to denounce a public figure than to confront the abusive behavior of the people in our own lives and our communities.

Some may argue we cannot change Jewish law related to the get. Nevertheless, we can still speak up as a community and oppose get refusers. We need to bring community pressure to bear on get refusers where it was not before. We need to expose get refusers as abusers, and recognize, as the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court ruled last week, even those who are providing financial support to get refusers are complicit in the abuse. In a groundbreaking decision, the rabbinical court issued a thirty day jail sentence to a father who has been providing support to his get refusing son. The court ruled that the father was an “active figure behind the captive situation” of the wife. This is a powerful statement in favor of protecting the victim rather than the abuser.

Agunot are our mothers, sisters and daughters. Take a moment and think about how you would feel if someone you love could not move on with her life because although her marriage was over, she was chained. Continuing to ignore the plight of the women in our community goes against our deeply-held values and teachings. We have an obligation to reclaim the power from abusers and get refusers, and place it back in the hands of chained women. When we recognize the rights of chained women and withhold our support of get refusers, we take a stand with our agunot. Today, on International Agunot Day, let us take a stand together.

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