G. is a young scientist who recently completed her doctorate in biology. She’s a mother of two who admits that it’s been hard for her to share her plight as an aguna (a woman who cannot get a Jewish religious divorce) with others.
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But last Friday her personal life became the focus of a national campaign, when a friend, with G.’s permission, posted her husband’s picture on Facebook, along with the story of how the husband, Oded Gez, had been withholding a divorce from G. for four years. The post went viral on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, with MKs from the Habayit Hayehudi party and their followers sharing and retweeting the story. Over the weekend it hit news websites and on Sunday it was in the newspapers.
This extreme act of “shaming” had the backing of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which late last month had instructed Gez to give his wife a get (divorce). In its punitive ruling, the court also called on the public to avoid Gez until he grants the divorce, invoking sanctions known as the “Rabbeinu Tam shunning,” which the court said includes not doing business with him, not hosting him in homes, not visiting him if he’s sick, not to allow him into synagogue and certainly not to call him to the Torah or lead prayers, not to greet him or to give him any honor “until he retreats from his stubbornness and harkens to the rabbis, and gives a divorce to his wife in the tradition of Moses and Israel, and releases her from her chained state.”
One of the overriding principles in Jewish law regarding divorce is that ultimately the get must be given of the husband’s free will. As a result, rabbinical courts tread carefully in imposing sanctions on men lest the resulting divorce be considered “coerced” and therefore invalid.
Invoking these social sanctions against a get-refuser, however, is not all that rare. The Rabbinic Courts Administration said that of the 209 cases of aginut – chained spouses, which includes 10 men – pending before the courts, there are a few dozen recalcitrant husbands who have been subjected to these sanctions. Rabbinical court judges hope that this social isolation will persuade them to divorce their wives.
What makes this case unusual is that the rabbinical court allowed the use of social media and permitted the publication of his picture, tactics that have sometimes been used by friends and supporters of agunot but that do not generally have official sanction. Tzviya Moskowitz, the rabbinic advocate who is representing G., said she could not have imagined the intensity of the reaction on Facebook, which she attributes to “a change that society has undergone. Today people, including in religious society, are not prepared to tolerate or overlook get-refusal.”
G. herself is somewhat ambivalent, saying that it bothers her that her husband’s identity and story have become part of the public domain. “On the one hand I am very grateful for the support and assistance I’ve received,” she told Haaretz.
“But it occurred to me that the publicity might lead him to commit suicide, or to run away with the children. These are just thoughts that ran through my head; they’re based on fear, not on anything substantial.
“The idea is not defaming and not shaming,” she added. “I don’t like the word ‘shaming.’ This is social pressure aimed at persuading someone to give in and agree to give me my freedom. We haven’t asked anything from him and don’t want anything from him, only to say, ‘I want to.’”
Heading the Supreme Rabbinical Court that imposed the sanctions on Gez is Chief Rabbi David Lau, who since taking office has succeeded in resolving some complex cases of recalcitrance. In this case he took at least two unconventional steps: summoning four senior academics from Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University and asking them to increase the pressure on Gez, a physicist who earned his doctorate at Bar-Ilan; and allowing the publicizing of Gez’s picture along with parts of the ruling the court issued last month.
These steps were so effective that last Friday, Bar-Ilan University announced that it was dismissing Gez from his position at its Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. On its Facebook page, Bar-Ilan said Gez “currently has no affiliation whatsoever with Bar-Ilan University. Gez studied and briefly worked here in the past, and was fired from the university. At this point in time, the university has no connection with him, professional or otherwise.”
Tel Aviv University, with which Gez recently became affiliated, said he was not employed there, but refused to say whether Gez was doing post-doctoral work there.
“I’m not sure that this was the optimal way of going about it, but we had really reached a dead end,” said G. She said social pressure might help in the end “because of the great importance he ascribes to his doctorate; it makes him an important person, a lecturer, a doctor and a scholar.”
Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, which assists women who are being refused a divorce, was not overly impressed by the invoking of the Rabbeinu Tam sanctions against Gez, saying the rabbinical court ought to weigh imprisoning him, which Israeli law permits.
“Rabbi Lau refuses to put husbands in prison,” she said. “He only works through compromise. They impose the responsibility on us, on the public, on the synagogue officers. It’s a bad joke. They also said that the woman wanted her husband’s name publicized, but what about the children? It’s a punishment for the children.”