The passage of a new law effectively criminalizing Orthodox men’s refusal to grant their wives a religious divorce has polarized the British Jewish community, pitting women’s advocates against a religious court system which claims that the legislation has inadvertently complicated efforts to free women trapped in broken marriages.
The measure, an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Serious Crime Act passed this March, expanded the definition of “controlling or coercive behavior” to encompass actions taken by a former partner following the termination of a relationship. This would effectively allow Jewish women whose husbands have refused to grant them a “get,” a religious bill of divorce, to lodge charges for abuse, resulting in fines or even jail time. Advocates say there are about 30 such women – called "agunot," or chained women – in the United Kingdom.
Last week, in response to the law, a rabbinical court affiliated with the north London-based Federation of Synagogues sent out a letter to federation rabbis advising them to warn their constituents against reporting get refusal to the authorities, stating that doing so would prevent them from actually receiving such bills of divorce.
Stating that the law had been passed without “due consideration of halakhic principles,” the court asserted that it had “created the potential for an agunah to find herself in a situation in which it will be almost impossible for her to receive her get.”
According to the religious court, a writ of divorce “given under duress, whether due to physical threats, financial threats or the threat of imprisonment, is absolutely invalid,” under halakha, or religious law. Members of the Orthodox community should be advised, it said, that initiating criminal prosecution in secular courts without getting written authorization from a rabbinical court means that said rabbinical court will not be able to halakhically arrange a get.
Following the statement, women’s advocates and lawmakers reacted with outrage. Lord Monroe Palmer, an Orthodox Jewish member of the House of Lords who helped draft the amendment, tells Haaretz that because a get cannot be forced, the measure was intended as a “punishment” for domestic abuse rather than as a coercive measure.
Secular courts in Israel – acting on behalf of state rabbinic tribunals, which can force the issue under certain circumstances – are empowered to sanction recalcitrant husbands, including through incarceration. But such an approach cannot work in the United Kingdom, where there are separate religious and state courts.
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Describing the rabbis’ approach as deplorable, Palmer says that it was up to the community’s religious leadership “to find a way around” the legal difficulties. He added that he hoped the legislation would “help focus people’s minds” on how to “come into the modern world.”
Responding to criticism, the federation, released a follow-up statement last Thursday. In it, it condemned “attempts to use the withholding of a get to extort money” and acknowledged that “withholding the giving or receiving of a get is a form of controlling and abusive behavior.” And while it said that it welcomed the law, the court continued to assert that it complicated efforts to free women trapped in these marriages.
Its stance was “not a matter of policy” but rather “an immutable fact of halakha,” it stated, adding that such a case had already occurred. This has forced it to “alert the public that one who goes down this route” without first consulting a rabbinical court “will have tied our hands in assisting further.” The court promised to “name and shame” recalcitrant husbands and their enablers in the community.
However, for a rabbinic court to actually rule that a get refuser is a recalcitrant husband is rare. When it does happen, it can often take years and have little effect, says Yehudis Fletcher, the founder of Nahamu, an organization dedicated to combating “increasing levels of extremist discourse and obscurantism” among U.K. Jews.
There is no enforcement on barring get refusers from community synagogues, she says. “It’s up to each individual synagogue if they’re going to allow him in and most synagogues will.” She adds, “What are they going to do? Absolutely nothing. The process is left for the women to chase, and most women don’t have the finances or the energy to do that.”
According to Jeremy Rosen, a rabbi and educator whose father once served as the federation’s rabbinic leader, the fact that Jewish women feel compelled to turn to a non-Jewish court is a sign of a deep problem in the Orthodox community.
“Halakha is supposed to be the word of god. It’s supposed to be something which is ethical and moral and that [will prompt] non-Jews [to] say ‘what a wonderful legal system the Jews have,’” he says, blaming a “shift from moderation to extremism.”
According to the Jewish Chronicle, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is currently trying to broker an arrangement between the various parties to the dispute, one of which appears to be the London Beit Din, or rabbinic court, which he technically heads. According to the Beit Din’s website, Mirvis is not involved with the day to day running of the court but does remain in constant contact with its judges.
In a statement carried by the Chronicle, the London Beit Din advised “women who are denied a get not to press charges, or threaten to do so until discussing the matter with a Beit Din, to avoid a situation where it would not be possible for a get to be given.”
A spokesman for the chief rabbi confirmed to Haaretz that Mirvis is currently engaged in efforts to resolve the issue, but declined to comment on ongoing discussions, because “this is very much a live issue.”
On Wednesday following multiple news reports regarding the controversy, the Federation released a statement saying that its rabbinical court had held discussions with lawmakers and Jewish women's groups with whom it was "exploring ways in which this law can be applied and developed to further assist in achieving Halachically valid Gittin for even the most challenging situations."
"We are optimistic," the group stated, "that this collaboration can achieve positive results."