Want a Get? Forego Compensation

"Is it possible to explain the bitter disappointment a woman feels during years of futile back-and-forth discussions in the rabbinic court, when she still doesn't receive a get [religious divorce]? How many tears does she shed over the wasted years, the loss of motherhood, the failure to enjoy the joy of a loving relationship?" asks Rahel Bahat. Bahat, a religious woman, has been refused a get for 11 years.

About a year ago, she decided she would not keep silent, and is now demanding her husband compensate her financially for her suffering. However, this has boomeranged: Since the rabbinic court heard about the damages claim she submitted to the family court, it has refused to continue discussing her case until she withdraws her claim.

The committee for appointing rabbinic and civil judges is due to convene next week. Bahat, feeling trapped, wrote to Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann a month ago to request that he appoint non-ultra-Orthodox rabbinic judges who would show more empathy for women refused a divorce under halakha. "How can it be that in a democratic country, my abusive husband has declared in court that he will not divorce me so long as I can bear children ... And the Israeli rabbinic court, which is an arm of Israeli law, is not prepared to free me ... until I give up a legal civil claim in another court?" she wrote.

Bahat, 36, is an Education Ministry computer instructor for teachers. She is a woman of principle who is prepared to fight for her beliefs. Most women who are refused a get do not show their faces in public, and women's organizations represent them. Bahat is a new kind of heroine who stands on her own two feet and speaks out against the religious establishment's monopoly on Judaism. "I am religious, and I understand halakha," she says. "In Judaism it was always possible to find solutions to free women from unwanted marriages, and even today these halakhic solutions are available, but they are not being put to use."

While fighting for a divorce, Bahat completed a bachelor's in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a master's in business administration. The delay in the divorce proceedings, whose neverending appeals have bounced between the regional rabbinic court and the high rabbinic court, has made her an expert in the legal complexities of her case and rabbinic court procedures - other women sometimes come to her for advice and guidance, she says.

In the past three years, more than 10 damages claims over refused gets have been submitted, mostly by the Center for Women's Justice, which promotes legal solutions for women who cannot obtain a get. The women who submit the claims demand compensation for suffering and the theft of freedom and honor. Bahat's claim was submitted by attorney Menashe Bar-Shilton, with the center named as an adviser. The rabbinic court views these claims as an infringement on its sole authority over matters of marriage and divorce, and therefore punishes the plaintiffs by refusing to discuss their cases.

Bahat, who belongs to the religious Zionist stream, married at 22 and suffered both physical and psychological abuse. After four years of marriage, she applied for a divorce. Her husband ridiculed the rabbis, promising time and again to give her an unconditional divorce but changing his mind at the last minute. She describes him as an obsessive person whose desire to make her miserable has become his life's project.

She is angry the rabbinic courts submit to the whims of husbands out of the belief that a husband must divorce his wife out of his own free will. She describes a standard ceremony: The rabbinic judges ask the husband what he wants in return for the get, and he raises his price as they continue to pressure her. Since she had no choice, she agreed to reduce her alimony request to the point that one judge asked whether the husband wanted to see his children stop eating yogurt. "That is what is so absurd," she says. "During the discussions, the judges sound empathetic but they haven't taken practical steps to help me divorce."

Only in 2002 were the judges convinced that her husband "is systematically ridiculing us as well as the supreme rabbinic court," they wrote, issuing a ruling in favor of divorce. Only a year later, at the next hearing, did she get an enforcement ruling. According to procedures, this means that within 30 days the judges should take sanctions against the husband, including even jail time, if he refuses to grant the divorce. But they did not go this far with Bahat's husband. "These people are afraid to do anything because according to their worldview, the husband cannot be forced into a divorce; otherwise it will be artificial," she says.

The Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University received data from the rabbinic courts this month showing that out of all the cases in which a get is mandated, only 1 percent of refusing husbands were punished.

Bahat was not aware that the civil compensation claim was like a red flag for the rabbis. In December, the Tel Aviv rabbinic court judges stated, "So long as a compensation claim in another court is hovering over the husband's head, this court will not arrange a divorce."

In an exceptional step, the family court judge hearing Bahat's claim, Yehoshua Geifin, wrote in mid-January to the rabbinic court, asking: "Why is the get between the couple not being arranged after both sides have given agreement in court?"

Rabbinic courts director Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan responded: "According to rabbinic court procedure, it is not sufficient for both sides to agree and for the get to be arranged ... The implementation is conditional on a court decision stating there is no halakhic obstacle to arranging the get." In other words, the rabbinic court is fully responsible for holding up the divorce.

Attorney Batya Cahane-Dror of Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps women who have been refused a get, says the fear of artificial divorce is "one big lie. That is the most hard-line approach that exists, and there are solutions even under the Orthodox approach." She adds: "Jewish tradition always found a solution: There is the selling of bread to a non-Jew before Passover, the sale of land during the seventh year, when it is supposed to lie fallow - why are there no solutions here?"

The committee for appointing rabbinic and civil judges will convene next week to choose 13 new rabbinic judges. There are 100 in total. Cahane-Dror says public attention is on the civil appointments, and the matter of rabbinic judges has been pushed to the sides. The ultra-Orthodox therefore can take advantage of this, because they have a majority on the committee. The committee meeting is particularly fateful this time, she says, because the new appointees will comprise a significant percentage of the 100, who are appointed for life and are overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox.

Cahane-Dror is hoping the new justice minister will come to the rescue. "It must be understood that the rabbinic court is the most important arena for relations between religion and state," she says. "This is a struggle for the way Judaism looks, especially regarding tradition versus women's rights."