February 2001 -- Legal Precedent:
Yaffa (not her real name) was an agunah - literally chained to her husband,
who refused to give her a get [Jewish writ of divorce] -- for almost 25 years.
At the age of 58 she reflected bitterly on her life:
Agunot Allowed for the First Time to Sue Husbands for Damages in Israel's Civil Courts
no longer have reason to seek a divorce. I am now too old to remarry or have
children.. He held me hostage for a quarter of a century, the master of my
body and my womb. I can no longer set up house and start a family. I will
live out the remainder of my years in loneliness..." Can you
put a price on the kind of pain Yaffa experienced? Can you put a price on
a woman's freedom? On her womb??? In a precedent-setting ruling by Jerusalem
Family Court Justice Ben Zion Greenberger the answer is, for the first time, a resounding 'yes'.
THE RULING The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline filed a
lawsuit in the Jerusalem Family Court on behalf of G.S., whose husband, S.,
had refused to give her a get even after ten years of living apart. The
Rabbinical Courts had ordered S. to allow her a divorce as far back as 1994;
he refused, continuously attempting to blackmail G. into waiving her rights
to child support and the marital home.
The lawsuit argued that S. inflicted a tort - a personal injury - to
G. He cynically and maliciously prevented her from remarrying, having children,
and, in general, determining her own destiny and living as a free person.
S. in turn filed a motion to dismiss his wife's lawsuit, claiming
that there was no tort, and no cause of action under Israeli law. He further
argued that she had the opportunity to freedom, had she just given in to
his demands, supported by the Rabbinical Courts, that she give up all of
The Honorable Justice Ben Zion Greenberger ruled against S.'s motion. He rendered that
infringement upon the autonomy of a woman is the direct result of her husband's
refusal to give her a Jewish Bill of divorce and, in my opinion, results
in damages that are actionable under the Israel Torts Law".
In other words, the lawsuit was found to have a cause of action in Israeli
tort law - the laws that define private or civil wrongs or injury.
THE RAMIFICATIONS A precedent was set in Judge Greenberger's ruling.
In effect, he created a new tort, or a new definition of what is considered
personal damages, opening the door to lawsuits from agunot who are being
denied a get. Women are now being given the opportunity to at least fight
for damages owed them for being forced to waste the best years of their life.
In the case of G., the civil court lawsuit was the impetus, after 10
½ years, for the Rabbinical Courts to finally successfully force S. to give
her a get. While the Jerusalem Family Court was hearing the motion to dismiss
the tort case, the Rabbinical Court ruled to jail S. for 5 years. As a result,
S finally gave G the get, but only after the Rabbinical Court Judges included
in the terms that the tort case would move to the Rabbinical Court from Jerusalem
Family Court. Although G. believed this constituted an abuse of rabbinical
power she accepted, and is today a free woman for the first time in a decade.
Ultimately, the ruling should act as a deterrent to other husbands
who are making their wives agunot, forcibly and cruelly chaining them to
marriages which are at best unhealthy and at worst, non-existent; blackmailing
them to give up child support or property rights, or worse, custody of children
and visitation rights; forcing them to pay exorbitant sums in exchange for
their writ of divorce.
GENERAL INFORMATION: The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and
Hotline, under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs,
offers legal aid to Israeli women of financially limited means in legal matters
pertaining to the process of obtaining a get. Clients are offered legal
advice as well as representation in the Rabbinical Courts. In addition,
callers to the Hotline receive free assistance and advice in matters pertaining
to personal status and divorce.
The Legal Aid Center and Hotline specializes in cases of agunot. Most of
the time, the cost of freedom is 'just' money. But a woman trapped in marriage
risks remaining an agunah forever, never again to marry or have more children,
unless she pays the price of a divorce-any price. The Legal Aid Center works
to stem these injustices, pressing for solutions from the courts and the
rabbis, and striving to create a world where the price of one's freedom or
one's womb will no longer be a factor in divorce negotiations.
Director: Susan Metzger Weiss, Esq.
Advocates: Sarah Markowitz, Avigail Rock, Devorah Brisk, Irit David, Rivka Lubitsch, Osnat Sharon, Vardit Rosenblum
Offices: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed