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“The books, the compositions, and the commentaries are our teachers, and all is according to the understanding of the intellect and reason.” R. Sh’muel ben Moshe di Modina

Monday, June 24, 2013

Heroes of the Beit Din Save the Damsel in Distress from the Clutches of King Kong

In this post I'd like to comment on an article written by Yehuda Yifrah that was published this past weekend (21-6-2012) in Makor Rishon (a newspaper that caters to the National Religious sector in Israel), in its Tzedek (justice) section, entitled "A New Era is Beginning".

When I read about the French woman Ella (fictitious name), who was a mesurevet get and her violent get-refusing husband, it brought to mind this image from the original 1933 King Kong movie.  (It might be hard to see, but King Kong is holding Ann in his left hand.)

Ella's story is a nightmare.  She was married for 11 years and suffered "a decade of torture and suffering."  Beating and other physical abuse, curses, threats like "I'm going to slaughter you," while he is holding a knife in his hand. Finally, Ella sued for divorce.  (For those who ask "why do we need feminism?", one answer is: we need feminism to reassure women that they should have zero tolerance for violence.)  And the husband's response to the request?  "Over my dead body."  When he didn't show up at the appointed time at the beit din in Paris, they said that there is nothing they can do to help her.  In fact, outside of Israel, that is true to some extent - the beit din cannot impose any sanctions like they can in Israel, such as taking away a driver's license or a professional license.  But they could have put him in herem in his Chabad community.  They didn't.  Ella said that the Chabad rabbis there apparently believe in Catholic marriage.  They told her that for the sake of holding the family together, she has to suffer in silence.  She said that in a different Chabad community in France, a woman (mother of nine children) was murdered by her husband.

But Ella had two strokes of luck going for her:
1) Her husband went to Israel for a family event.
2) The couple emigrated from Israel, so they are Israeli citizens, giving the batei din in Israel the authority to rule in such cases and to impose sanctions. Thus they were able to impose an order to prevent the husband from leaving Israel, which forced him to come to the beit din.

So, like the squadron of bi-planes (the outdatedness of the planes is a good metaphor, I think) arrives to save Ann, or perhaps like Superman, the dayyanim in the Tel Aviv beit din, headed by Rav Shtasman, swooped in to save the captive woman.

Yifrah paints a picture of this beit din as being representative of a "new era" of batei din with a "new generation of young dayyanim ... who are leading a revolution in the level of service that is provided currently by the batei din to the public."  The woman's lawyer (a woman) also praised the beit din: "I feel like we received the get as a gift!"  (Gift?!!  She, too, is speaking like an abused woman.  "Oh, thank you, thank you so much for not beating me.") "This man could have easily evaded [giving a get], and only the determination of Rav Shtasman and the other dayyanim  brought about the desired result.  I felt awakening in me a respect for the beit din, which became a user-friendly place, and finally there is someone to work with."

The quoted spokesperson - a close contact of Rav Shtasman, also praised the Tel Aviv beit din: "They don't disparage the importance of guarding the family unit and the value of shalom bayit (reconciliation) in situations when it is sensible and feasible," (by the way, Ella's husband also requested shalom bayit when he appeared - because  of the order not to leave the country - before the Tel Aviv beit din) "but when they identify a broken relationship that cannot be repaired, they act quickly."

But just a moment!  What was holding this woman captive?  It is the halakhic system of marriage that was holding her captive!  Halakha that the batei din have faith in, support and rely on.  So these "heroes" are coming to save her from a system that they are a part of, that they are compliant with.  Keep in mind, she had no trouble getting a civil divorce in France.

But in the halakhic system, a woman's freedom is dependent upon men - her husband and the beit din.
כִּי הִנֵּה כַּהֶגֶה בְּיַד הַמַּלָּח בִּרְצוֹתוֹ אוֹחֵז וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ שִׁלַּח
"As the helm in the hand of the seaman, who holds it at will or casts it at will"  (from a piyyut in the Yom Kippur evening service)

When I began this blog, I described it (as you can see above) as "a blog about halakha, women and Judaism, Jewish family law, agunot."  I explained in my first post that "My primary focus is to discuss Jewish family law, through examination of recent piskei din (judgments) from the Israeli batei din (Jewish courts of law).  I explained that there is not "a vast difference between application of Jewish family law in the Israeli system of batei din and application of this law in any other Orthodox beit din, wherever Jews reside.   ... There are differences between Israel and outside of Israel as to how this application of Jewish family law interacts or interferes with the secular courts, how much power of enforcement the dayyanim have, and the options before a Jewish couple, at least one of whom wishes to dissolve the marriage.  In each case – being in Israel vs. outside of Israel – there are some more difficult aspects and some less difficult aspects."  My aim with this blog is to enlighten the readers: what does (halakhic) Jewish marriage entail?  What are the obligations that one is agreeing to when entering such an arrangement?  What is a ketuba and what does it entail?

I wrote in that first post that "we find a system that is bogged down in antiquated law and outdated concepts that have outlived their relevance to the way people live their lives today.  We find a sincere, often well-meaning, attempt to regulate modern lives with an inappropriate set of tools.  We find a system in which the power lies solely in the hands of men, even though, by sheer coincidence, I suppose, half of the people involved in marriage and divorce happen to be women."

My aim in writing this critique of Yifrah's article is to put out a warning.  Don't be deluded by the idea that friendlier batei din will solve the problem of agunot, or that it will convert the halakhic marriage into something that is appropriate for our generation.  We don't need to reach a level of violence to want a divorce.  We don't need to be so desperate as to regard a get as a "gift." Every woman - and man - is entitled to have control over his or her life.  It should not be the beit din's decision, no matter how "friendly" the beit din is, to decide if shalom bayit is desired or even feasible.  Only you know what it would mean to continue living with this person whom you once loved, but has become intolerable for you.

The correction has to be at the "root" of the problem - Jewish marriage laws. This is not just a matter for those couples who come to the beit din to divorce. It is a matter for every happy couple.  The marriage laws must be appropriate for the types of relationships that couples have in this era, and not those of a thousand or two thousand years ago.

A Hebrew version of this post can be found here.

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