The case that changed the life of attorney Susan Weiss was particularly
galling. Five years ago, after 13 years as a private lawyer specializing
in the troubles of women involved in divorce proceedings, Weiss decided to
establish a non-profit association to handle the problems of women whose
husbands refuse to give them a get, a Jewish bill of divorce.
"The woman complained that her husband beat her, raped her and moved
in with another woman," says Weiss. "Even at the regional court, where the
case was heard, he was verbally abusive toward her, and the dayanim [religious
judges] decided to force him to give her a get. But then he appealed to the
High Rabbinical Court, and won.
"It was one of the most shocking rulings I'd ever heard. They claimed
I hadn't proved that he was unfaithful, although we had a tape of him confessing.
The court said the confession was not a statement but a question ("I cheated
on my wife?"). They also ruled that even if he had been unfaithful or violent,
they couldn't force him to give a get because he had not been forewarned
[according to Jewish law, a person can be punished only if he has been warned
by two witnesses - Y.S.]. Since we were talking about the High Rabbinical
Court, there was no other forum for me to appeal to. The woman petitioned
the High Court, but the justices said they couldn't interfere in the decisions
of the rabbinical court."
In September 1997, Weiss, with the assistance of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
of Efrat, founded Yad L'isha, to aid women whose husbands refuse to give
them a get. Today, Yad L'isha, which operates under the auspices of Rabbi
Riskin's Ohr Torah network, has seven female rabbinical pleaders - Weiss
herself is not a rabbinical pleader - who represent the women in court free
of charge or for a nominal fee. "My idea was to help women who are the most
badly off by pairing them up with the most powerful women in the religious
world today," says Weiss.
It is not clear how many women today are waiting for recalcitrant husbands
to give them a get. Yad L'isha handles more than 100 cases every year, but
the hard data resides in the files of the rabbinical courts. In a past interview
with Haaretz, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, director of the rabbinical courts, said
that only 200 husbands in Israel refused to give their wives a get in 2002.
Ben-Dahan, however, is speaking only about cases in which the court ruled
in favor of coercing the husband to comply and he still refuses. His figures
do not include women who have been waiting for many years - and continue
to wait - because the court does not want to impose its will on their husbands.
"Thousands of women want a divorce every year and end up with nothing,"
The problem that creates this bottleneck is the halakhic (Jewish legal)
requirement that the husband release the wife from the marriage of his own
free will. According to halakha, it is permissible to put pressure on recalcitrant
husbands and impose sanctions on them, but in the end, the husband is expected
to agree of his own accord. Otherwise, it is deemed a "get me'useh" or "forced
get," and declared invalid.
Fear of a get me'useh leads many dayanim to drag their feet and avoid
issuing a coercion order even in cases where the husband is violent, and
to hesitate even more before imposing sanctions. "Many dayanim just let the
case drag on - anything so they won't end up with a get me'useh," says Weiss.
"So first of all, I insist that they reach a decision."
Some dayanim are particularly strict and will only accept the grounds
for divorce mentioned in the Talmud. Weiss recalls one case in which a man
went to live with another woman in Europe and even had a child with her,
but the dayanim still asked "Where are the grounds for divorce?" In another
case, it turned out that a husband who beat his wife suffered from bad breath
- which does appear in the Talmud as grounds for divorce - and the dayanim
ruled in the wife's favor.
An even bigger problem is that many husbands take advantage of the situation
and set conditions for their compliance. That way, they avoid being labeled
recalcitrant husbands. "We're not refusing her a get," they say. "She's the
one who won't compromise." They know the dayanim will jump at the opportunity
to avoid a get me'useh. "The upshot," says Weiss," is that women are forced
to give up many of the rights that are coming to them, on issues like child
custody or schooling. Very often, the husband blackmails the woman into surrendering
some or all of her property, or demands that a jointly purchased apartment
be signed over to him. There are husbands who agree to give their wives a
get only if they waive alimony.
"Unfortunately, many dayanim go along with this sort of thing and encourage
the women to give in. `What do you care?' they say. `Instead of alimony you'll
get an income supplement from the state.' [A woman who receives alimony is
not entitled to an income supplement - Y.S.] They are spared having to coerce
the husband, and `only' the state coffers suffer.
"According to the National Insurance Institute, the state paid out NIS
833 million in income supplements to divorced women in 2001. Husbands promise
to pay alimony and then they don't, so National Insurance lays out the money
and demands repayment from the husbands. In 2001, National Insurance paid
NIS 110 million in alimony and managed to collect only NIS 45 million."
Weiss's most infuriating disclosure is that sometimes the court itself
pays recalcitrant husbands, using the taxpayers' money, in order to get them
to agree to a divorce. "I still have vivid memories of one case in which
the husband demanded $20,000 to hand over the get," says Weiss. "In the end,
he settled for $10,000. The court paid $5,000 and we raised another $5,000."
The source of the money paid out by the rabbinical courts is not clear.
It hides beneath the general rubric of the "Agunot Fund," which provides
funding for solving the problems of agunot - women whose husbands have disappeared
without giving them a get. Most of the money is spent on sending rabbis overseas
in search of these missing husbands, in order to liberate women from their
"chained" state. When a lawyer from Weiss's office recently inquired how
much money is paid directly to recalcitrant husbands, the assistant director
of the rabbinical court replied that he could not give her figures because
these sums "are not a formal sub-clause of the budget."
Weiss, 49, is an American immigrant and an Orthodox woman herself. "I
think I was born a feminist," she says. "When I was five, and I went with
my parents to a `sholom zukher' [a festive meal on the Friday night between
the birth and circumcision of a baby boy - Y.S.], I wanted to know why there
wasn't such a thing for girls. Even when I was a kid, the inequality in dividing
up the chores at home always bothered me. Maybe my sense of justice developed
early because my biological mother died when I was two, and I had a lot of
questions about why I was different from other kids."
Eighteen long, hard years of work in the rabbinical courts has left her
angry - not at Jewish law but at the dayanim. "It's because I know halakha
offers all kinds of solutions for these difficult problems, but the dayanim
are afraid to use them," says Weiss. One solution, she says, is for dayanim
to be more forceful in imposing sanctions on recalcitrant husbands, including
sending them to jail (which is usually quite effective). "On the other hand,
I can't say I'm happy to see some of these guys getting longer prison sentences
More successful, she feels, are preventive measures, like passing laws
that enable the court to void a marriage in certain cases of assault or infidelity,
or even when a couple stops living together for enough time to show that
they have parted for good ("between a year and a year and a half"). Weiss
notes that there are dayanim today who look for various technical reasons
to annul a marriage, even without the enactment of sweeping laws. One strategy
is to declare the witnesses invalid. According to halakha, only Sabbath-observers
are kosher witnesses [quite a few rabbis deliberately arrange for secular
witnesses, not so much to make it easier for the couple to divorce some day
as to prevent the possibility of the woman giving birth to a `mamzer,' a
bastard, if she commits adultery and becomes pregnant - Y.S.].
Weiss herself prefers a solution, also kosher from a halakhic standpoint,
which obviates the need for the husband's consent. For example, adding a
clause to the marriage document stipulating that if the couple stops living
together for a certain period of time, the marriage is over. Alternately,
a prenuptial agreement can be drawn up whereby the husband undertakes to
pay a large fine for every day that he keeps his wife waiting for a get,
in the event that she demands one ("although the dayanim want a ceiling on
the fine, again to avoid the possibility of a get me'useh").
Although the work is difficult and frustrating, Weiss can also list accomplishments.
"The courts are coercing more men to give their wives a get, and accepting
a wider variety of grounds for divorce compared to when we first started,"
says Weiss. She is also proud of another legal precedent that she established:
damage suits against recalcitrant husbands.
"Up to now, we've filed three such claims," says Weiss. One husband,
hearing that the court was going to force him to cooperate, just picked up
his heels and ran. I'll never forget how I chased him, together with a rabbinic
pleader, from the courthouse on Koresh Street all the way down Jaffa Road
to the marketplace.
"In all three cases, the husbands handed over the get in a jiffy. In
principle, we can also sue recalcitrant husbands after they sign on the dotted
line, but by then, most of the women just want to forget the whole business.
Emotionally, they don't have the strength to go through another court battle.
Now, for the first time, we're filing a suit on behalf of a woman who's prepared
to sue even after receiving her get. Maybe we'll finally see a judgment that
will put a price on the damage inflicted by recalcitrant husbands."
Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan doesn't understand Weiss's criticism of the payments
made by the rabbinical courts to recalcitrant husbands. "Maybe some criticisms
are justified," he says, "but when we take action that goes beyond the call
of duty to free these women from their husbands and make it possible for
them to finally receive a get - for that, too, we deserve reproach?"
He doesn't remember the exact sum paid out each year to these husbands,
but he claims it's not more than NIS 100,000. "A couple of thousand shekels
at most in each case," he says. "The largest sum we've ever paid is something
like NIS 15,000. Usually it has to do with a debt run up by the wife which
the husband wants covered before giving the get. But she doesn't have the
money, so the court steps in to help her. Sometimes the husbands make their
cooperation contingent on a larger amount of financial assistance and we
have to turn to private donors."
Ben-Dahan shares Weiss's criticism of dayanim who are lenient with recalcitrant
husbands because they are afraid of being blamed for a get me'useh. "Yes,
we do have dayanim whose judgments are on the timid side," he says, "but
they're a small minority. The fact is, we now have 12 husbands sitting in
jails around the country, and over the past five years, we've handed down
350 rulings imposing sanctions on such men. So there has definitely been
an improvement in the system."
At the same time, he has harsh words for the committee that appoints
dayanim (headed by the religious affairs minister and composed of the chief
rabbis, representatives of the dayanim currently on the bench, and representatives
of the Knesset, the government authorities and the Israel Bar Association).
"They don't always do a thorough background check on the candidates and sometimes
end up appointing the wrong people," says Ben-Dahan. "Just recently, the
committee appointed a dayan who was fiercely opposed by the women's organizations.
The committee should be looking not only at the candidate's legal portfolio
and his attitude toward coercion of recalcitrant husbands, but at his conduct
as a whole - things like whether he was habitually late when he studied at
a kollel [yeshiva for married men]."
As for the halakhic solutions Weiss is talking about, Ben-Dahan approves
of the idea of a prenuptial agreement. "The courts have already endorsed
such agreements," he says. "But this depends less on the courts than on the
marriage registrars, who need to inform prospective couples of this option
ahead of time. Annulling a marriage, on the other hand, is a much more complicated
business. In my estimation, over the whole of the last millennium, it's only
happened once or twice. Our energies would be better spent pressuring the
dayanim committee to elect people who are worthy of the job."