Under Jewish law, only men have the power to divorce their wives. And Jewish law doesn’t change that easily, if at all. So in Canada, a group of women has opened unprecedented paths for those spouses who wish to free themselves from the bonds of marriage.
When your husband “goes out to get cigarettes” and takes off for good, it can be pretty devastating. If you happened to have married under Jewish law, beware, matters can get much worse.
The only way to dissolve a Jewish marriage is through a get, a hand-written document that the husband must grant to his wife voluntarily. Until that moment, the woman bears the status of agunah: someone who is tied, chained or anchored to an absent spouse, a condition that prevents her from marrying under Jewish law, and dooms her future children and their descendants as mamzerim (bastards) forever.
The biblical support for this procedure is found in Deuteronomy (24:1):
“When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it comes to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemliness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house”.
This prerogative is widely used by men whose marriage has fallen apart as a bargaining chip for purposes of custody, money, alimony and control. Others, in denial, refuse to assimilate the fact that their wives could choose to leave them.
“We tried therapists, we tried rabbis, we tried friends, we tried, I don’t know, we tried like these big rabbis who come from Israel who are like kabalistic types, they’ll look at a mezuzah or they’ll look at something and they’ll tell you, “this is your situation” and how to change it and he…It just wasn’t moving ahead”, says Miriam Sebbag, a 51 year old woman who after 27 years of marriage, nine children and five grandchildren, decided to leave her husband. That was almost four years ago, and her husband still refuses to give her a get .
“Here I took this big step and it was not easy and I don’t know where I really got the courage to walk away because for many years it just was getting more and more difficult and yet even with that I am still kind of being held to the marriage and to the situation and again to the outer situations that come out, the financial debts and irresponsibilities that were issues before, I can’t totally walk away from them because they keep showing up at my doorstep, in my mail, on my phone machine, you know, requesting my bank account, whatever it is, and emotionally too, you know, you want to feel like you can just move on with your life”.
I met Miriam through Evelyn Brook, president of The Coalition of Women for the Get, who is approached by approximately ten new agunot every year, some of them tied to men they didn’t even agree to marry in the first place, as is the case of daughters who were betrothed to a man by their father when they were under 12 (kiddushin ktana) or childless widows, who are expected to marry their brother in law. While the practice of this levirate marriage ceremony is less and less frequent, the woman remains an agunah for as long as the deceased husband’s brother refuses to perform the ritual of halitzah to break the bond.
This is not Miriam’s case. While she met her husband through a matchmaker, she got married of her own free will.
“We went out once, actually, and after one date we pretty much decided ok, this seems ok. The next date we went to visit my parents […] it was like I know him, he’s nice, he pushes the wheelchair at the hospital and synagogue, he is good natured to the people, that was all the reference that there really was”.
When Miriam looks back, she feels compelled to advise her children, who are going through the very same matchmaking procedure, to look into the personalities and the backgrounds of their future partners. “I tell my kids, what happens in the date is a mini glimpse of what your life can be with that person”.
The issue of children, as it happens, of an agunah’s children, is one of the most indelible effects of the Jewish divorce law. If a man who hasn’t granted his wife a get marries a free woman, the children will bear the status of their mother. Those of an agunah are forever deemed mamzerim (illegitimate), as are all of their descendants. So, even those secular Jewish women who have no problem walking away from the Halacha, will probably have a hard time inflicting such a status upon their children.
While there are numerous rabbis who insist on adhering to the husband’s decision, even in cases of blatant and proven abuse, there are also religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Whitman, from Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Community in Montreal, for whom, if the relationship is clearly over, it is a sin to withhold a get for any reason.
“On the Biblical level”, he declares, “I accept that God’s commandments are just and moral and the best thing for us, even when I can’t see it. But I do not understand why God decided to make marriage end in a way that husbands can abuse or mistreat their wives.”
And here’s where the work of The Women’s Coalition for the Get has become so important.
In a matter of a few years, from 1986 to 1990, “a bunch of housewives”, as Evelyn Brook likes to call herself and her fellow activists, brought the issue to court, and managed to pass an amendment to the Canadian Divorce Act, in August 1990.
Due to the separation of Church and State in Canada, courts cannot intervene in religious divorce and, in any event, a get that has been granted under any sort of coercion is void. So the amendment is about denying recalcitrant spouses or, in legal terms, spouses who establish “barriers to religious remarriage” the right to be heard in court. When a lawyer brings up the matter, the judge can ask the spouses whether they have taken care of their religious divorce and dismiss the pleadings of the spouse who denies the other the right to be married again. That is the leverage an agunah has today.
It was this amendment that allowed for Stephanie Bruker, of the famous Bruker vs. Markovitz case, to obtain her get 15 years after her civil divorce. She was also awarded monetary compensation: $2500 dollars for every year she was deprived of the opportunity to be married in her community.
For many, however, like Me Anne-France Goldwater, who defended Mr. Jason Marcovitz against Stephanie, it is a scandal to allow the State to intervene in religious matters: “a lot of what religious communities do is anathema to the secular world; there are people who, once you open the door, and say ‘come in and look at what we do with the get’, they are going to come in and look at everything else we do, and they will judge it. […] If tomorrow there is a prohibition against circumcision, something that is a big movement in North America, we will have a hell of a problem .. we are going to be shoved with all the Muslims who do female circumcision and there it becomes a matter of criminal prosecutions […]”.
The debate is not only endless, it is old.
In the 12th century, Maimonides considered the wife’s lack of sexual desire for her husband a good-enough reason for divorce when he talked about moderets, or rebellious wives, those who refuse to submit to their husbands in the sexual act: “We ask her for the reason for her refusal. If her answer is that he has become displeasing to her, we compel the husband to divorce her there and then; she is not like a prisoner of her husband to be forced to submit to one whom she hates.” (Ishut 14:8)
Moreover, the Talmud provides the following scenarios for a woman to request a divorce: she could appeal to the rabbis if her husband refuses sexual intercourse, if he is sterile or impotent, or if her husband’s smell is vile.
Granted, it can’t be easy to admit of one’s own reek in front of a rabbinical court. However, presenting oneself as someone who is holding a woman against her will has to be more embarrassing. And outlawed too.
Gettlink is an organization that facilitates communication among agunah activists worldwide. If a husband cannot be found, his description may be put on this list by contacting any one of the member organizations:
ICAR: International Coalition for Agunah Rights, www.icar.org.il
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, www.jofa.org
Claudia Itzkowich is a Mexican journalist based in Montreal.