Recent headlines about two Orthodox Rabbis, accused of kidnapping husbands, and physically forcing them to grant their wives Jewish divorces, have revealed a serious problem, a Jewish woman trapped in a divorce with a man who refuses to let her go.
Judaism does allow for divorce. However, unlike the civil process where either party may file for divorce, under Jewish religious law, only the man is allowed to ask for the divorce. He must appear before the religious court, the Bet Din, to make the request. Depending upon the community, the Bet Din might help resolve all of the parties’ divorce issues, but typically,today, they just issue a religious divorce decree called a Get.
That little piece of paper can affect generations to come. If a Jewish woman does not have a Get, she is not allowed to remarry. In many communities, she can’t even date without the Get. She is known as an agunah, a woman whose marriage is technically over, but whose husband cannot or refuses to give her a Get unconditionally and in a timely fashion. Agunah literally means a chained woman.
Should the agunah decide to enter into a civil marriage, any children she would have from this relationship would be considered a “mamzer”, a child from a forbidden sexual union. This would include incest but also includes offspring whose married mother has children with someone other than her husband. Mamzers and their offspring can’t marry within the Jewish community. Rabbis are trying to find loop holes to prevent and limit the agunah problem.
In a Jewish divorce, if the husband doesn’t start the process there is nothing the woman can do so she would be forced to give into any of his demands for her freedom. When a husband refuses to issue a Get, he is bullying and abusing his wife.
Most Rabbis are empathetic to women in this situation. Conservative and Orthodox Rabbis are providing a prenuptial agreement to couples. Many Rabbis will not perform the marriage ceremony without one.
These prenups provide that the parties agree to appear before the Bet Din to dissolve their marriage as well as agreeing that if the parties separate, the husband agrees to pay the wife a designated sum, every day, until he provides the Get. It also provides that if the wife does not accept the Get, the obligation to pay ceases. The Get isn’t finalized until the woman accepts it. Rabbis are finding that the utilizing the prenup helps to alleviate the agunah problem. Two websites where you can find the prenup as well as information on the Get process are:
•www.kayama.org provides information on the Get process
I urge every attorney, mediator and collaborative professional to make it clear in any prenuptial agreement that the couple agree to provide the other with a Get. Additionally, every Property Settlement Agreement should also include language that the parties will cooperate with the Get process and if not, can be sanctioned by the civil court. Once these items are spelled out in these documents, it is more than likely that the civil courts will enforce the religious agreement. Otherwise, such as in New Jersey, the courts will not force a party to provide a Get, unless it already was part of a written agreement. If it is not codified in a civil document, New Jersey courts see it as blurring the line between State and Synagogue/Church, because then they are requiring a party to be involved with a religious process. However, if a party signed an agreement saying they would provide a Get, then the court is just enforcing an agreement and women would no longer be trapped.
Lorraine Breitman, Esq.