Two women walked free last week. On Sunday, Mazal Dadon was finally granted a divorce by her ex-husband, Yaron Attias, after two years during which he refused her a get. Frustrated with his recalcitrance, a few weeks ago a rabbinical court publicly excoriated Attias, calling upon the public not to associate with him and using its powers to revoke his driving license. He drove anyway and landed in prison. That proved the last bit of pressure necessary to force him to do the only decent thing. Very belatedly.
The rabbinical courts rarely go to such lengths. They received favorable coverage for sticking up for a woman held in the captivity of marriage. But if there is one body that doesn’t deserve that kind of credit, it’s the state-funded Beit Din. For a woman to convince the rabbis she has suffered enough to “deserve” her marriage to be terminated is hard enough. But the fact there are cases nowadays in which a recalcitrant husband can linger for month and years, and get away with refusing a get, must be blamed on the system that enables it to happen. Attias is scum for mistreating his wife in this fashion, but it was the rabbis who were ultimately holding Dadon prisoner.
Why was there a need for Dadon’s entire personal life to be put on display? And while there is certainly no need to feel any sympathy for Attias, do we really want a religious court to have powers to levy civilian penalties?
And it’s not just the rabbis. The entire political system – going back to David Ben-Gurion, who promised the Chief Rabbinate back in 1947 that in the Jewish state they would have sole control over marriage and divorce – should be held to shame. Ben-Gurion promised the ultra-Orthodox leaders they would retain the hegemony they had since Ottoman times over marital status in the future state if they allowed the Zionist leaders to be the sole representatives of the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community) in negotiations with the United Nations over statehood.
It was a pragmatic and necessary decision at the time: A separate non-Zionist position could have seriously undermined the claim to an independent Jewish state. Seventy-one years later, that consideration no longer exists. But no Israeli government has been prepared to seriously challenge the Rabbinate’s monopoly.
The political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties continues to prohibit civil marriage in Israel. The most rigid rabbis – representing at most 10 percent of Israelis – hold the rest of us captive. We have a choice, of course – not to get married, or to travel and do so abroad. Israeli couples can live together in common-law marriages, recognized by civil courts. But men and women who want to exercise their right to be formally married (assuming they’re straight couples – of course, the gay paradise that is Israel has no same-sex marriage) must submit themselves to the rules of old Haredi men with no experience of modern life.
Every poll made for decades shows that an overwhelming majority of Israelis are in favor of freedom of marriage. Other surveys indicate a steadily increasing number of Israelis, including Orthodox ones, marrying privately, without the Rabbinate’s interference. But the majority – for reasons of tradition, ignorance or family pressure – most still submit. And even those of us who don’t are complicit for not turning this into a major issue.
The rabbis and their politicians demand that the monopoly remain for the sake “of the unity of the Jewish people.” The assumption is that if the Rabbinate can no longer ensure that marriages, and divorces, conform to halakha (Jewish religious law), there will be a terrible rift among Jews, which would make it impossible for them to even marry each other.
This, of course, is pure bullshit. Most Jews in the world have lived for generations in countries where they were free to marry in any fashion they chose. Modern registry systems seem to have allowed people to know whom they are marrying. Whatever threats face the Jewish people, real or imagined, civil marriage isn’t one of them. And anyway, none of those rabbis would let their children marry someone who has not been vetted by them comprehensively as coming from an uninterrupted line of God-fearing Jews, so their Beit Din marriage certificate is not useful anyway.
Defenders of the Rabbinate have made the case that even if there were freedom of marriage in Israel, it would have not helped Mazal Dadon, as she is a religious woman and would have chosen a religious marriage anyway.
This may well be true, but when demanding freedom for all, we should also demand it for those who have chosen in the past to submit themselves to religious domination.
Dadon and thousands of other women who are held prisoner by a religious establishment they have chosen to submit to, for their own reasons of belief, still deserve better treatment from the rabbis. And the only way they will get it is if those rabbis lose their monopoly.
Which brings us to the second argument made by the defenders of the Beit Din.
“What do you want from the rabbis?” they ask. What choice do they have but to rule according to halakha? This probably isn’t the best place for a theological explanation on the talmudic rule that the husband marries and divorces his wife, not the other way around. Suffice it to say that the case could be made that the Talmud’s marriage laws were based on contemporary social customs and the relationships between men and women in ancient times. Were there an Orthodox rabbi with sufficient stature to rule that today’s norms have changed and rabbinical law can also change accordingly, there would be sufficient grounds for doing so. The rabbis of old were brave and responsible enough to make such deeper changes when communal life needed it. But the Orthodox community doesn’t have rabbis of that stature or sensibility today. It’s pointless to expect them to do so in the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean that even within the rather narrow confines of halakha, there is no room for flexibility. Room that the Rabbinate’s Beit Din chooses not to make use of. Which is where the second woman who walked free last week comes in.
Tzviya Gorodetsky was refused a divorce by her physically abusive husband for over 20 years. The Beit Din eventually came to her aid, in its way, and Meir Gorodetsky has been in prison for 18 years. And still refused to grant her a get. In this case, it was a different, “private,” ad hoc Beit Din, made up of three Orthodox scholars who are not state-employed dayanim (religious judges), and therefore are not afraid for their careers and promotions (which, within the state Beit Din system, are controlled behind the scenes by senior Haredi rabbis).
The private Beit Din on Wednesday granted Gorodetsky an annulment, based on a list of technical halakhic flaws in the original marriage. She doesn’t need a get now and is free, at 54, to restart her life.
Why couldn’t the state’s Beit Din do the same? They are either too timid to shoulder the heavy responsibility of rendering a married woman “permitted to any man” – or afraid that if they do so, they will attract criticism from their seniors. And why should they be flexible anyway? It’s not like Tzviya Gorodetsky had a choice. She couldn’t have got divorced anywhere else.
The Rabbinate is somewhat sensitive to public criticism, which is why it makes a grand show of punishing a tiny handful of recalcitrant husbands. But unless it loses its monopoly and is forced to compete for those couples who want a Jewish marriage but are wavering over whether to submit, it will never show even the slightest sign of flexibility.
Since the politicians are not even dreaming of challenging this hegemony – for fear of losing the governing coalition support of the ultra-Orthodox parties – the only way of trying to beat the monopoly is for more couples to join the growing number of those choosing to marry outside of the Rabbinate. It’s especially important in Israel, where there is no legal choice, but also for Diaspora Jews, to help by making this an accepted norm. If you want a halakhically Orthodox wedding, you can go online and find Orthodox rabbis who will do a non-Rabbinate ceremony. And according to halakha, you don’t need a rabbi anyway.
The only way to prevent the Beit Din keeping women captive is for couples, of every religious stream, to do it themselves. Getting married without the Rabbinate is practically a mitzvah.
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