Rabbinical Judges to Watch Screening of Gett - a Popular Israeli Movie That Indicts Them

Award-winning ‘Gett – The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’ tells of woman denied a Jewish divorce.

Amit Berlowitz

The rabbinical courts administration is planning a screening of the movie “Gett,” directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, for dozens of rabbinical court judges (dayanim) at their annual convention in February.

The initiative for the screening came from Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, who is also an attorney. He told Haaretz that the idea came to him when, during an interview with the Makor Rishon newspaper, he was asked to comment on the film, which he hadn’t seen. He told the interviewer that he didn’t go to the movies, but that he thought he “and all the rabbinical judges should see this movie.”

Yaakobi, who is the legal adviser to the rabbinical courts, obtained the approval of Supreme Beit Din (religious court) president Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to hold a private screening of the movie for the rabbinical judges, to be followed by a discussion of it.

“The president of the Beit Din has given his approval for the movie ‘Gett’ to be screened on one night of the conference that will be held in February 2015, on condition that Mrs. Yona Giat (in charge of overseeing service conditions in the rabbinical courts for dayanim and rabbinical court advocates) watch the movie first and ensure that there are no modesty issues that would prevent the dayanim from watching it,” Yaakobi wrote in a November 8 email to the members of the dayanim association.

The Elkabetz siblings’ movie “Gett – The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” depicts the protracted ordeal endured by a woman who goes to the rabbinical court seeking to be released from her marriage, despite her husband’s refusal to give her a gett (divorce). The movie had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it won much critical praise. It went on to win the award for the best film at the Jerusalem Film Festival (along with the movie “Princess”) and recently won the Ophir Award for best film, which means it will also be Israel’s entry for the Best Foreign Motion Picture Oscar.

Before 'Gett' there was 'Mekudeshet'

This won’t be the first time that dayanim watch a movie that is igniting a public debate about their institution. In 2004, some senior dayanim had a special viewing of the documentary film “Mekudeshet,” directed by Anat Zuria, which followed the travails of women in the rabbinical courts and even brought men and women out to the street to protest in front of the Jerusalem Beit Din. At the time, senior Beit Din officials were invited to take part in public discussions about the film, and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, then chief rabbi and president of the Supreme Beit Din, publicly responded to the movie, and refuted the statistics that were cited in it.

The precedent this time is that the organized screening will take place at the annual dayanim convention, which is a key professional gathering attended by many dayanim from rabbinical courts around the country. The vast majority of these rabbis are ultra-Orthodox, who would never go to the cinema.

Yaakobi says, “I think the rabbinical courts should be attentive to the public discourse. I really think they need to see this and need to understand the nuances and to see how we are perceived by the public, and to have an internal discussion about it. If the public sees us in a certain way, even if it’s inaccurate, it’s important for the system to analyze this and propose ideas for what to do so that the true picture will be projected. If the portrayal is credible, and a real change of conduct and management is required, then this needs to be talked about and done, too.”

“This movie has already become a leading factor in the social discourse and not just a cultural event,” says Ami Palmor, the Justice Ministry director-general who is also serving as temporary director-general of the rabbinical courts. “It brought about greater public awareness of the rabbinical courts and women’s status in them, and it’s creating tension in the rabbinical courts, which already work under a female minister and director-general (Justice Minister Livni and Palmor herself). Their legal adviser, who is also ultra-Orthodox, is in contact with me and with the minister, and knows that there is public discussion surrounding ‘Gett.’ Following the screening we held for Justice Ministry employees (this past Monday at a conference on Israeli women who are refused a gett), he came up with this initiative and decided to pick up the gauntlet.”

“The reason this screening for the rabbinical court judges is so important is that the movie conveys the point of view of the woman who has been unable to obtain a gett,” says Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and coordinator of the Agunah and Gett-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency.

“Dayanim, particularly the more experienced ones, think that they understand the woman’s point of view. But even for a rabbinical court advocate like myself, who has represented hundreds of women – when you see this movie, because its effect is not just intellectual but emotional too, it enables you not just to understand the woman who is seeking a gett, but also to feel a little of what she feels and to understand something of what she’s going through.”

Throughout the movie, the dayanim are repeatedly shown to be in no hurry to release Viviane from her marriage because they don’t see sufficient cause to do so from a halakhic standpoint. “The kind of unstable relationship you see between the couple in the movie – that’s something very common in the divorce cases that come before the rabbinic courts,” says Levmore. “We would place Viviane Amsalem’s suit to obtain a gett in the halakhic-legal category that’s called ma’us alai (‘he has become insufferable for me’) – i.e, without a clear explanation, because her husband didn’t beat her or rape her. Today, a majority of the divorce cases in the rabbinical courts fall into this category – a situation that isn’t strong enough to obligate the husband to provide a gett.”