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Get refusal leaves many Jewish women in limbo

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A Cape Town woman has been living in a married wilderness for five years because her former husband is refusing to give her a get. But now she is getting help from the Cape Town branch of the Union of Jewish Woman (UJW) who has launched a campaign they hope will persuade the rabbonim and community leaders to help secure a get from the man who is getting married in a civil ceremony this Sunday.
by BRIAN JOSSELOWITZ | May 25, 2016

A get, a divorce document in Jewish law which must be presented by a husband to his wife to effect their divorce, returns to the wife the legal rights that a husband holds in regard to her in a Jewish marriage. The essential part of a get (plural gittin) is: “You are hereby permitted to all men.” This means that the woman is no longer a married woman and that the laws of adultery no longer apply to her.

A Facebook project, called Go-Getters-the South African Gett Network, was started recently by Michelle Blumenau of Johannesburg, a friend of the woman’s (who does not want to be named to protect the dignity of her children) and her husband when she lived in Cape Town many years ago, with the help of Capetonian, Balu Nivison.

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Someone asked if UJW would support action to try to assist the agunah - and the rest is history




The UJW says the religious community regards the husband’s attitude as a form of domestic abuse.
Until the wife secures a get, she is a so-called “chained” woman and cannot have relationships and will be regarded as an adulteress if she does so, as she is still married religiously. She is one of two women in Cape Town facing this predicament.

Leaza Cowan, chairman of the UJW in Cape Town, started the Women4Women activism group (W4W) after they screened a film in May on women who are unable to secure a get from their husbands.

“During question time after the film, the issue of two women was highlighted and someone in the audience asked if the UJW would support any action to try to assist the agunah - ‘chained’ women - and the rest is history,” Cowan said.

“Our Constitution gives us a mandate to take part in matters affecting the rights of all women. We have a proud history of promoting and working for women’s rights since 1947, which has continued to this day. We recently set up W4W as a subcommittee to look at issues affecting women today. The first time I had heard of the woman’s plight was at the movie,” she said.



​Is it Jewish gender discrimination?

The couple in question were married in 1993, the woman told SA Jewish Report. This was before South Africa’s new Constitution was adopted. The then Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris negotiated a clause to the effect that the man has to give his wife a get along with a civil divorce, so that Judaism would not be unconstitutional on the grounds of gender discrimination. 

However, Cowan said that as far as she was aware, it was not obligatory and is dependent on the discretion of the judge presiding. “But it is clearly a case of gender discrimination in Jewish law,” she pointed out.

Blumenau said she started the Go-Getters on Facebook with the help from Nivison. She told Jewish Report from Johannesburg they have agreed to raise awareness via shuls, community leaders and brides. 

Cowan was, however, wary of divulging their plan of action as W4W did not want to alert the people they were targeting. “But, if nothing happens (securing the get) in the next few days, we will be taking visible action,” she said.

W4W said while the Beth Din in South Africa explained that this Torah law cannot be changed, they understand the need to find a way to resolve it, and there are reputable orthodox religious Jewish leaders who say that to avoid these terrible, unreasonable, unjust and abusive circumstances occurring in the future, they are very happy to work with other organisations and groups towards finding a way to rectify it. 

Nivison said the woman in question has been waiting for five years to get a get, “but he (the husband) refuses and shifts the goal posts all the time”.

Rosh Beth Din Moshe Kurtstag recently warned that recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, would be “named and shamed”.

Wikipedia says the laws of gittin only provide for a divorce initiated by the husband. However, the wife has the right to sue for divorce in a rabbinical court. The court, if finding just cause as prescribed in very rare cases in Jewish law, will require the husband to divorce his wife.

In such cases, a husband who refused the court's demand that he divorce his wife, would be subjected to various penalties in order to pressure him into granting a divorce. Such penalties included monetary punishments, and corporal punishment - including forcing the husband to spend the night at an unmarked grave (with the implication that it could become his grave).



Men can make (and get) unfair demands

In modern-day Israel, rabbinical courts have the power to sentence a husband to prison to compel him to grant his wife a get. Rabbinical courts outside of Israel do not have the power to enforce such penalties. This sometimes leads to a situation in which the husband makes demands of the court and of his wife, demanding a monetary settlement or other benefits, such as child custody, in exchange for the get. Prominent Jewish feminists have fought against such demands in recent decades.

UJW and Go-Getters are raising awareness about the woman’s plight as most people in the Jewish community are unaware of the circumstances. “We want people to know about it and put pressure on the ex-husband to give the get and we are also asking the rabbonim to do more to put pressure on the ex-husband to do the right thing,” Nivison said. 

Rabbi Kurtstag from Johannesburg told Jewish Report that the drastic action the UJW referred to was to put the man in cherem. “Among the sanctions are that he would not be counted in a minyan, he would not be allowed to take part in any Jewish rituals, he would be ostracised and at the most extreme, would not be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.” However, Rabbi Kurtstag said that when he told this to the former husband, the man said he did not “need the shul”.

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Civil divorce can't serve as a substitute for a halachic get but Av Beth Din Kurtstag suggested UJW hold a protest with placards outside the man’s business

“There are many reasons why the man is so obdurate; it could be a form of blackmail. Whatever it is, it is time the community stood up against this kind of abuse, which is a growing and ongoing problem.”

Chabad.org states: “While Jewish law requires one to follow the law of the land and thus necessitates a civil divorce as well, a civil divorce cannot serve as a substitute for a halachic get (conforming to the strictures of Jewish law).

“Without a get, no matter how long the couple is separated and no matter how many civil documents they may have in their filing cabinet, in the eyes of Jewish law the couple is still 100 per cent married.”

7 Comments

  1. 7 Jp 25 May
    ...I believe he used to have knee-caps 
  2. 6 Adine Friedman 25 May
    Traumatic situation for the wife, kids and all family concerned. 
    Selfish man!!
  3. 5 Barb 27 May
    Why can religions not change with the times? Perfect opportunity to change this law.  I am not saying to forget all laws if they don't suit, but when it has such an emotionally devastating effect on someone, how can this be a good thing?  For a man to have so much power over a woman for no reason other than it says so in the bible does not make sense. Especially if the man can get on with his life and get married.  
  4. 4 Michelle Scher 29 May
    I applaud all who are standing up! I find it abhorrent that the woman & her children have had to endure this and be exposed to this. I call on Chief Rabbi Goldstein and Rabbi Kurstag - Now is the time to stand up - Literally - in front of the man's front door - supported by all who wish to participate (including myself!) and demand that he sign the get! 
  5. 3 Rav Shalom 06 Jun
    This story highlights the archaic, misogynistic attitudes of fundamentalism.
    Why, oh why do we give fundamentalists such power and then have to expend so much time, energy and angst to combat the discrimination that inevitably results?

    The very concept of an Agunah is fundamentally misogynist, denigrating to woman and an arrogant and chauvinist stance on the part of men.
    I understand and sympathise with the victim in this instance - and applaud those supporting and assisting to convince the ex-husband to grant the get.
    However he should not have this power in the first place.
    How is it we still acknowledge the males ownership of a women's sexual life?

    This practise is steeped in ancient and discriminatory ways where the males made and enforced all the rules. Most advanced cultures have left this psychosis behind.
    Why do we Jews retain these trappings of misogyny and indeed actively perpetuate them?

    The only strategy for justice employed here seems to be to convince/persuade/coerce the man to grant a get.
    The real strategy should be to do away with this discrimination in the first place.
    Neither partner should have legal or moral rights over the other's sexual life in perpetuity.
    Yet we see a woman and her community being held to ransom by a petulant male.

    Our Faith has dispensed with Torah sanctioned polygamy, stoning and assorted gruesome minimum sentencing guidelines.
    It’s way past the time to discard discriminatory end of relationship inferences in our personal lives.
  6. 2 Jp 08 Jun
    Dear Sir

    Where I agree with you (as you declared in another comment elsewhere) is in the greatness of a unified people - the quality of Shalom is of the dearest and best achievements to strive for. As our sages say, that even if all of Israel were worshiping idols but there was Shalom amongst them, then Hashem could not touch them. Further Shalom is derived from one of Gds names and so is a level very very close to Gd. That's why we need to chase after it - as we see in Pirkei Avot where it talks about being like the disciples of Aharon "Rodef Shalom".

    Still, I, out of a dear love for Torah and convinced of its true, enduring relevance for today, I will not ignore it being disgraced and misrepresented.

    The Torah is deep and to put a surface spin on the topic of the Aguna as you have done in your comment is to run away from the question and close off a great opportunity to discover the light and insight that awaits within. As Pirkei Avot says - turn it over and over as all is in it.

    I don't purport to have a full answer for you - and I intend to research the topic for myself. What I do suggest is for you to do some honest research of your own and  - what if the Torah was cleverer than you thought?! For you to be saying the things you have -you clearly did not give it a genuine chance. Why not find a Rabbi you comfortable with and/or find resources online to research this in depth?

    A topic to tackle with intrepid trepidation. Suitable as we stand just before mount Sinai where we celebrate receiving our spiritual mandate.

    Yours
    Jp
  7. 1 David B 11 Jun
    amazing how these learned Rabbis who most of us follow , cannot find a way around the current interpretation of this law -  in my mind' where there is a will there is a way'
      Come on Rabbis find a way to be fair to the women in our community , or you will be failing the whole community. 

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