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Last Thursday, the international conference of rabbis and dayanim (rabbinical court judges) was suddenly canceled. The conference, which was scheduled to open today, intended to solve the problems facing agunot and women with recalcitrant husbands. Agunot, or "chained women," refers to women whose husbands have abandoned them, disappeared or refused to divorce them; they are then unable to obtain a religious divorce (get) and remarry. The cancellation of the conference stirred up anger and confusion among the representatives of the various communities abroad, some of whom had already arrived in Israel or were en route.

Attorney Sharon Shenhav, the conference organizer, was the most disappointed of all. Shenhav had worked long and hard to establish the ties between the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and rabbis from all over the world who were planning to attend. "The agunot conference would not have been born to begin with if the problem of agunot in Israel and Jewish communities around the world had not become such a burning issue," she thunders. "Amid the chaos created by the cancellation of the conference it seems they have forgotten its objective - to help the chained women."

Shenhav says the conference hung on the brink of cancellation over the last few weeks and she used all her connections to persuade community representatives to attend. But on Thursday afternoon, Shenhav discovered that rabbis who had been scheduled to attend had received cancellation notices from Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, under whose auspices the conference was supposed to take place. Two years of labor were lost in an instant. Needless to say, no one bothered to notify Shenhav of the cancellation.

A week before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amar summoned her for a meeting. He told her, she says, that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was urging him to cancel the conference due to women's involvement in organizing it. Shenhav agreed to downsize the role of her women's organization in the conference, but to no avail. "It is a capitulation on his part to the Ashkenazi pressure," she says, "Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had even agreed to greet the participants."

At first, Rabbi Elyashiv also gave his consent, claims Shenhav, but then she found out from rabbis and dayanim in Israel that "pressure was exerted by the dayanim Hagai Isirer and Avraham Sherman, associates of Rabbi Elyashiv." Either they or their emissaries warned the rabbis not to attend the conference of radical feminists ("that's us" she smiles). Isirer declined to comment on the matter.

Shenhav is the only woman on the 10-member Knesset committee, which appoints dayanim. This is her second term representing the Israel Bar Association on the committee. Today she also heads a project to monitor Jewish women's rights for the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW).

Shenhav says the need for a joint conference for rabbis from Israel and abroad arose two years ago following the realization that the phenomenon of recalcitrant husbands had grown in Jewish communities. "The screening of the film 'Mekudeshet' [Sentenced to Marriage] by Anat Zuria, which relates the personal stories of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, in various Jewish communities, contributed to this awareness," she says. In meetings of the committee to appoint dayanim, she would discuss with Rabbi Amar some of the difficult cases she was handling. She then suggested the idea of an international conference.

Women's organizations that work on behalf of the agunot argue that the film also affected Rabbi Amar, who started working actively on behalf of women with recalcitrant husbands. "As a dayan, Rabbi Amar was also sensitive to the problem," says Shenhav. "It is known that he is searching for solutions for women with recalcitrant husbands and that he cares. Too bad he gave in to the pressure of the Ashkenazim."

Rabbi Elyashiv's aide confirms the rabbi gave his consent to the conference only after the women's organizations were distanced from it. "It is inconceivable that the conference would be organized by the women's organizations that are fighting the rabbinical courts," he says.

But last week Rabbi Elyashiv withdrew his consent when he found out that Eli Ben-Dahan, and not Rabbi Amar, would be the sole person responsible for determining the content and speakers at the conference.

The forced get

"The rabbi is not pleased with Ben-Dahan's involvement in halakhic matters." The aide denies the reports of pressure being exerted at the behest of Rabbi Elyashiv or emissaries he sent to rabbis abroad. The aide also denies the involvement of any dayanim dispatched by the rabbi. He adds that Rabbi Hagai Isirer "only asked Rabbi Elyashiv for permission not to attend the conference and not to address it. And that is indeed his right." Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan stated that he did no understand why the conference was cancelled.

Activists in the women's organizations were hardly surprised to hear of Rabbi Elyashiv's opposition to the agunot conference, or of the involvement of Dayan Isirer and Dayan Sherman in the matter. They argue this is a matter of principle and not a political issue and that this point is essential for understanding the issue of women with recalcitrant husbands. Attorney Susan Weiss of the Center of Women's Justice says: "The dayanim are caught between the hammer and the anvil, between the women's organizations and modernity and the conservative foundation represented by Rabbi Elyashiv. In the current situation in the courts, the spirit of Rabbi Elyashiv and his conservative rulings have the upper hand, and influence the dayanim." Rabbi Elyashiv's opposition to the conference, according to Weiss, is due to the possibility that it may discuss prenuptial agreements and expanding sanctions against recalcitrant husbands. Weiss says Rabbi Elyashiv's rulings on divorce matters are among the most stringent in existence and stipulate it is forbidden under any circumstances to intervene in the husband's free choices. He must issue a divorce of his own free will and it is forbidden to force him to issue a get or to send him to jail to pressure him into doing so. In effect, the husband is granted the right to set the terms of the get and to extort the wife.

Even though they have at their disposal the law and they can pressure the husband to issue a get and impose a series of sanctions, according to Rabbi Elyashiv's ruling, in taking such steps, the dayanim are taking the risk of issuing a "get meuseh" (a forced get), which according to halakha is an invalid get, as it was not given voluntarily. If it turns out that the divorce was invalid and the woman had children in the meantime, they would be declared bastards. "As a result," says Weiss, "dayanim are dragging their feet and do not wish to force recalcitrant husbands to issue a get."

A closed system

Rabbi Sherman and Rabbi Isirer are close to Rabbi Elyashiv and are known for bowing to his will. Of the two, Rabbi Isirer's attachment to Rabbi Elyashiv is more fascinating, as he was a teacher at Yeshivat Hakotel before he became ultra-Orthodox. He joined the Supreme Rabbinical Court around two years ago and women who plead before the rabbinical court know the panels he sits on are bad for women and make discriminatory rulings against women.

According to Rivka Lubitz, of the Center for Women's Justice, not only does Isirer delay cases in which other panels would have long ago sent the recalcitrant husband to jail, but he reinforces the husband's right to set conditions for the woman to obtain a get. In one of his rulings from 2004, Isirer waxed poetic and said that "the right to set conditions applies not only to monetary issues but also to behavior. For example, she should not eat certain foods or wear certain clothes."

After the women's organizations attacked him, Isirer did indeed retreat somewhat from his positions, but the spirit of his words was etched in the collective memory, and the husbands' rabbinical court pleaders have since been using them against the women.

Prof. Menachem Friedman, who researches ultra-Orthodox society, explains that the ultra-Orthodoxy hegemony over the Chief Rabbinate stems from a historic error. A result of this error, those who succeeded in gaining a foothold in the Rabbinate and who became interested in being a dayan were young men from the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. "It's impossible to expect ultra-Orthodox rabbis who hold conservatism sacred to make reforms," says Friedman. Friedman believes that one must understand the sociology of dayanim and rabbis in order to understand why they are connected to the ultra-Orthodox centers of power: "The group of rabbis and dayanim derives its power solely from the milieu in which it operates. They're all intermingled. The rabbis and dayanim teach each other's children. It's a closed system that determines fates. What does the dayan care about the criticism that some rabbinical court pleader, Rivka Lubitz, writes about him?"