Reprinted with permission from
,The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Why do “religious” men refuse to cooperate in a religious divorce? In the best of all possible worlds, we would all live happily ever after and there would be no divorce. In that world, in the rare instance that divorce became a necessity, both parties would willingly and amicably cooperate in the proceedings. But we do not live in that best of all possible worlds. Divorce is at times necessary, and at other times, desired by one party or the other. Often divorces are contested and contentious and, frequently, much time and anguish are expended on coming to terms and resolving matters in civil courts as well as in rabbinic tribunals.
The Jewish Law of a Get
Jewish law does not recognize the granting of a “no fault” divorce as a right of either the husband or the wife. In other words, just because one party wants a get does not mean that the other party must cooperate. And in most cases, a get me’useh, a compulsory divorce, is not valid. Certainly, if both parties are in agreement, a bet din will not stand in the way of their separation and will facilitate their religious divorce.
However, where only one party wants the get, Jewish law, only in rare cases, will obligate the other party to cooperate (chayav le-garesh). At other times it encourages cooperation (mitzvah legaresh). But mostly it does not grant the authority or provide the mechanism to do either.
Details of the situations in which a get can be coerced are outlined in the Shulhan Arukh, Even Ha-Ezer, chapter 154. The list includes specific circumstances in which it is either personally or religiously impossible for one party to live with the other. But the list is a limited one and does not include many of the situations confronted in our modern age. And if the situation is not found on this narrow and limited list, a beit din will refrain from coercion (ibid: 154:21).
With that as background, we return to our question: why do some “religious” men refuse to cooperate in get procedures?
Halakha is Not the Issue
Although there may be technical halakhic excuses for not cooperating in the get process, to my mind the essential issue is not the halakha. In my opinion, even if the Talmud or Shulhan Arukh does not obligate or even encourage the delivery of a get, once a couple has stopped living together as husband and wife, and that decision is final, delivering a get is the only moral and just thing to do. And if despite counseling and therapy, despite negotiations and arbitration, and despite attempts at reconciliation, one party wants out of a marriage, the other party, in all good conscience, should not endlessly persist in demanding shalom bayit (harmonious domestic reconciliation). And you should not need a Talmud or a Shulhan Arukh to tell you that!
A get was never meant to be used as a husband’s tool to gain concessions in divorce proceedings. A woman should not have to “buy” a get by compromising on a financial settlement or on her relationship with her children. Yet, too often, this is what happens. And no halakhic pilpul justifies this! At times, as acrimony and disagreements enter the divorce proceedings, the delivery of a get is transformed from a mitzvah (an affirmative religious act) into a to’eivah (a negative abomination).
A Type of Domestic Abuse
In my opinion, the withholding of a get is a form of spousal abuse. Experts tell us that, at its core, domestic violence is not about the physical assault or the sexual exploitation or the emotional cruelty or the economic manipulation or the limiting of social contacts or the restricting of mobility, but is really all about power and control. It is about one party’s need and desire to dominate another and to dictate (in most cases it is the wife who is abused) what, where, how and when the wife should live her life. The abusing spouse will cleverly and manipulatively use all means under his control: physical violence, sexual assault, harsh words, demeaning criticism, economic power, etc.
Unfortunately, in our community, a recalcitrant husband may manipulate halakha and abuse its dictates to further assert power and control over his former wife. In my opinion, a withheld get is equivalent to a physical, sexual or emotional assault. In our day, we have deplorably allowed and enabled too many husbands to exploit the halakha by transforming a precious mitzvah of the Torah into an abusive tool.
An agunah activist in the community once told me about one of “her” women, a woman who has been cheated out of a get for a number of years and whose husband refuses to support her or their children. She is now dependent on the kindness and charity of others just to feed and clothe her family. When asked why she persists in remaining religious and continues in her commitment to seeking a get, this agunah responded, “He took everything from me: my money, my clothes, and my self esteem. I will not let him take the one thing I have left, my faith.”
Perhaps her faith will renew ours to stop the further abuse of our precious mothers, sisters and daughters, and will renew our efforts to stop the abuse of what we as religious Jews cherish and honor the most, the very Torah herself.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shah-LOME, Origin: Hebrew, peace, or hello or goodbye.
Pronounced: shah-LOME BYE-ET, Origin: Hebrew, peace in the home.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.