Women in Chains: Divorce in the Orthodox Jewish Community

On November 4, 2013, 25-year-old Gital Dodelson appeared on the cover of the New York Post to go public with her story. The young mother of one had been trying for over three years to leave her marriage. Married in 2009 in both a civil and Jewish religious ceremony, Dodelson separated from her husband, Avrohom Meir Weiss, after only 10 months. The couple was civilly divorced in August 2012. However, despite all efforts to fully extricate herself from her marriage, Dodelson remained bound to Weiss by religious law. With no power to initiate a divorce in a Jewish court, Dodelson turned to the only forum she felt was open to her: the court of public opinion.

Dodelson qualified as what Judaism calls an agunah, literally meaning a “chained woman”— a woman who is tethered to a husband and unable to leave her marriage. Originally the term referred to women whose husbands were lost, their fate unknown. With no evidence that their husbands had died, these women could not be considered widows, a status which would enable them to remarry. Instead, these women remained chained to an empty marriage, forbidden from any other romantic relationships. Though Weiss was not lost, by refusing to grant Dodelson a religious divorce, he placed Dodelson into the same category. Dodelson was an agunah, chained to a husband she found controlling and abusive, unable to disentangle herself from the painful binds. 

In Orthodox Jewish law, a religious divorce, known as a get, can only be given by a husband and accepted by a wife. As a result, Dodelson, who was able to pursue a divorce in civil court, was powerless to begin the proceedings in a religious court, other than to ask the court to request that her husband grant her the get. Her husband, on the other hand, could choose when and under what circumstances he would be willing to grant her request. 

The get, the religious divorce document, has become a tool for manipulation, coercion, and extortion. Husbands can refuse to give the get unless their wives agree to renegotiate alimony or child custody arrangements, or unless their wives agree to pay them sometimes astronomical amounts of money. Some men refuse to grant their wives a get as a matter of power and control, or sometimes even to hurt their former spouse in yet another step in what might have been an aggressive civil divorce process. 

While there are also cases cited of women who manipulate or extort their husbands by refusing to accept the get, keeping their husbands bound to an empty marriage, the male spouses have more tools at their disposal to extricate themselves from the religious marriage than their female counterparts. Moreover, the consequences of a woman not receiving her religious divorce and having future children are far more dire—her subsequent children would be considered mamzerim, children born from a forbidden relationship, prohibited to marry anyone other than another mamzer, a status which remains in effect for all future generations. 

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a New York-based nonprofit that aims to resolve the issue of get-refusal, says that about 150 to 200 women a year come to them for help. While there are a few Jewish courts that are exploring options such as marriage annulment, there are very few courts that would consider it and even then, would rarely give such a ruling. By and large, the two options for women who are trapped in an empty marriage are public pressure on the husband—such as newspaper articles (as in Dodelson’s case), rallies in front of their homes and/or places of employment, flyers posted around neighborhoods, and lists of recalcitrant husbands appearing in Jewish newspapers and in synagogues—or violence. 

In October 2013, the FBI arrested a group of men in the New York area, including prominent community rabbis, as part of a sting operation to expose a plot to kidnap and torture men who refused to give their wives a get. FBI agents recovered masks, ropes, and scalpels together with feather quills and ink bottles. The imagery of this scene is horrifying. The masks, ropes, and scalpels on one side of the table—the tools of pain and suffering, to be used in unfathomable ways to coerce a husband to agree to grant his wife the get—with the feather quills and ink bottles on the other side of the table—the tools necessary for the scribe to write the ancient words on a piece of parchment in careful Hebrew calligraphy. The instruments of Jewish rituals have become mixed up with instruments of torture.

There are segments within the Orthodox Jewish community that have attempted to find systematic solutions to the problem of get refusal. The most accepted response to date has been the halakhic (Jewish legal) prenuptial agreement, a document that is signed by a bride and groom in advance of their marriage. This document outlines that in the event of a divorce, the couple agrees to resolve any disputes related to the get before the religious court and that the husband obligates himself to support his wife in the amount of $150 per day, adjusted for inflation, from the time that they cease to live together as husband and wife for as long as they remain religiously married.

Rabbi Yona Reiss, a noted Torah scholar, attorney, and jurist who serves as the head of the beit din (religious court) of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, cites that in 100 percent of cases of marriage in which a halakhic prenuptial agreement was signed, the get was issued and accepted in a timely manner.

Despite the success of this document, the practice of signing the halakhic prenuptial agreement has yet to become mainstream within the wider Orthodox Jewish community. Moreover, the document attempts to give the female partner more leverage in the divorce proceedings, but does not resolve the inherent inequality in the process, nor does it fully eliminate the man’s prerogative to use the get as a bargaining chip or as a tool of manipulation or punishment for a former spouse. 

Three months after Gital Dodelson appeared on the cover of the New York Post, Weiss gave her a get. Although her particular case is now resolved, the broader questions remain. How can we systematically impact the Jewish legal system to mend the imbalance of power between husbands and wives? How must the Jewish community respond to get-refusal in a way that neither condones the action nor turns to violence? How can we teach our children lessons of equality and partnership when even the healthiest of marriages remain fundamentally unequal? 

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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