Why Are UK Rabbis Trying to Stop Women From Divorcing?
We often witness the insensitivity and negativity of rabbis who seem unaware of the damage they can do when they claim to be upholding Jewish law.
The most recent case concerns Jewish divorce. In recent years, civil courts have legislated to help wives whose husbands refused to give them a religious divorce, a Get.
Without a Get, a divorced woman cannot remarry religiously. This is one of the most pressing issues in Judaism today. A religious divorce has to be handled by Jewish courts. The only reason the civil courts get involved is because many religious courts, even if they try to help, refuse to address problematic issues. Why should we expect civil courts to clear up our own mess? But why not use them to our advantage if we can?
The Bible specifically permits divorce. The Talmud devotes a whole tractate to it. This does not mean it approves of treating marriage casually. But relationships break down for a variety of reasons. The Talmud tightened up the Biblical laws by insisting on a Ketubah, a kind of pre-nuptial agreement that made financial provision for a woman both in terms of protecting her assets and providing for her in case of death or divorce. This is an integral part of the Jewish marriage ceremony to this day.
Although the Talmud opposes compulsion in divorce (a Get Meusah), rabbis did use compulsion or heavy persuasion to get men (and women) to give ( or accept) divorces when the courts had decided the grounds were legitimate (Gitin 88b). The Talmud recommends financial penalties if a man refused to divorce after it had been sanctioned.
The Gaonim in Babylon favored physical coercion under several circumstances. So too did Rabbeynu Chananel, R.Yitzchak Alfasi, and Maimonides. It is the definition of persuasion as opposed to coercion that lies at the root of most of the problems in a Jewish divorce nowadays. In Israel, since divorce is part of the Law of the Land, men who refuse to grant a divorce can find the weight of the law coming down heavily upon them, including being sent to prison. This does not always solve every case, but it helps with pressure.
The crucial turning point in Western rabbinic opinion was when Rabbeynu Tam (1110- 1171) made an edict banning any kind of compulsion. Some argue this was a response to Christian pressure, which was strongly opposed to divorce altogether. Whatever the reason, this has been the excuse rabbis have used since then to declare that a Get that is coerced is invalid.
You would have thought that the rabbis would be delighted that a way has been found to pressurize partners who use the Get as a bargaining tool. But no.
Recently in the UK, Baroness Altmann, Baroness Deech, Lord Mendelsohn, and Lord Palmer — proud and brilliant Jewish members of the Lords — helped craft amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act in order to help protect Jewish wives suffering from abusive, coercive behavior by their husbands.
The Beis Din of the Federation of Synagogues (the United Synagogue spells it Beth Din), in London, objecting to this new law, found ways to make matters worse by sending a letter to their constituents saying that any court action to force the husband to give a Get constitutes compulsion and is unacceptable, and a woman going to the civil courts will be denied a Get.
The implication of this is that going to civil courts is against Jewish law whether over divorce or abuse.
Lady Altmann, who is frum, responded, saying: “My heart breaks. I can only hope and assume that they have misunderstood the situation. What [the rabbis] seem to be saying is that a woman who is a victim of abuse can’t protect herself. And if she tries to protect herself in British law, she finds that the religious courts are on the side of the abuser. It’s not my idea of religion.”
I can understand that Jews should always go to the Jewish courts of law first on matters of a religious divorce. That’s the ideal. But to then say that going to a secular court for help when they are denied, will automatically prevent the possibility of a Get even if the husband finally capitulates, makes no sense. ”
Instead of solving the issue through creative halacha, too many authorities are paralyzed by what I can only think is male chauvinism. I bet if the boot had been on the other foot. and only women could give a Get, this would have been solved long ago. But of course, they will never admit it.
I want to make it clear that I am very fond of the Federation and what it stands for. This is not personal. My father Kopul Rosen זצ״ל was its fearless Principal Rabbi from 1945 to 1949. I wonder how he would have reacted.
The author is a rabbi currently living in New York.