Regime change

Orthodox Jewish ‘chained women’ get renewed hope for long sought-after divorces

A Jewish bride sits next to her groom during the Mitzvah Tans dance ritual following their wedding in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem on February 18, 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

In Orthodox Judaism, a marriage cannot be undone unless the man consents to a “get” — the Hebrew word for divorce — but a recent case in Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court is giving hope to the community’s so-called “chained women,” seeking release from unwanted marriages. On August 8, a haredi Orthodox man was sentenced to 30 days in jail for pressuring his son to refuse a divorce from his wife for more than a decade. In July, Israeli media also reported that the court sentenced a recalcitrant husband to five years in jail for persistently refusing his wife a divorce. The precise number of chained women in Israel is not known, but estimates range from hundreds to thousands.

Women who are not granted a divorce cannot remarry and are often shunned by their own religious community. Any children they go on to have with another partner are permitted only to marry other “illegitimate” children in Israel, and so on through following generations — a stricture that does not apply to offspring of a recalcitrant husband.

Due to an influx of new judges, however, and in response to increased public pressure, Israel’s rabbinical courts seem to be more willing to move against any husband refusing his wife a divorce. “As the old guard are replaced, many of the new appointments are much more in touch with the reality of Israeli society and the standing of women within Israeli society as a whole and within Jewish law specifically,” Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate who works with chained women, told JTA.

Activists representing the interests of chained women — most of whom are Orthodox religious women — say enlightened views among the general public have moved the rabbinical courts to mete out harsher punishment to recalcitrant husbands. In the case of the father who was sentenced to jail time (and fined around $40,000), the husband’s actions were described by a legal academic as “pure cruelty.” The wife had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2005, while the family — from New York — vacationed in Israel. The husband subsequently abandoned his wife and their two children, but refused her a divorce for 11 years.

Levmore, who also wrote her doctorate on the issue, said the appointment of four women to the 11-member Rabbinic Judges Appointments Committee that selects new judges had positively impacted the process. “The four women formed a voting bloc,” she said.

“I believe and hope that a new spirit of caring and understanding of the woman’s position as a victim of get refusal and as a [chained woman] is spreading throughout the entire system,” she said.

Read the full story at The Times of Israel.

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