Religious Courts Are Treating Agunot Unfairly

Religious Courts Are Treating Agunot Unfairly

There is a disturbing new threat to agunot — women unable to obtain a religious divorce. And only those involved in contentious divorces know about it.

Rabbinical court judges are robbing these women of the civil liberties they are entitled to as United States citizens, insisting that agunot litigate all aspects of their divorce in batei din, religious courts. When they refuse to forfeit their right to litigate in civil court, batei din threaten them with a seruv, a contempt citation. A seruv can be published in newspapers, publicized in store windows and taped to lampposts. It informs a community that the person refuses to accept the jurisdiction of a beit din. It exposes a woman to public humiliation and ostracism at a time when the community should be mobilizing to support her. 

But agunot have good reason to fear putting their safety and financial security and that of their children in the hands of batei din. A woman entering a beit din will face three male rabbis, who will judge her mothering skills, and piety. That’s in contrast to civil courts, where social workers and child psychologists are consulted, and guardians are appointed to ensure the welfare of minor children. When dealing with custody and visitation of boys, batei din may emphasize matters important to Orthodox men, such as learning Talmud. We know of several instances where violence against children was downplayed in custody and visitation disputes, and diligence in prayer and study emphasized, resulting in decisions awarding abusive fathers greater and unsupervised visitation. 

We have each spent some 30 years as volunteers assisting spouses as they navigate the beit din system. We have often seen agunot stripped of alimony, child support and marital assets. Because the husband must grant the get willingly, rabbis try to appease him at the wife’s expense. 

This past summer we received more calls than ever before from chasidic, yeshivish and Modern Orthodox women asking how to obtain a get while avoiding a din Torah. Women who live their entire lives observing halacha [Jewish law] to its fullest extent, whose main goal in life is to raise Torah-true children, now find themselves fearing rabbis, and strategizing how to steer clear of the dangers inherent in the beit din system.

In a tight-knit, suburban community, Yitta is full of fear. After years of abuse, she left her husband, sued for divorce in civil court, and won custody and child support. The judge ruled that her husband leave the family home immediately, and permitted her to remain in the house until the youngest child turns 18, when the house would be sold and the proceeds divided equally. Yitta knows that if her husband persists in his recalcitrance, the judge, under the New York State equitable distribution statute, might award her the entire house. Hopeful that her husband would be motivated to grant the get in order to preserve his claim on the house, Yitta was looking forward to a better future.

Suddenly, her optimism was shattered. Her husband, trying to win better terms for himself, summoned her to a din Torah. The rabbinical court demanded that she leave civil court, and re-litigate all aspects of her divorce in beit din. The rabbis warned Yitta that if she refused to submit to their judgment, they would subject her to public humiliation in the form of a seruv.

Afraid of losing custody, Yitta has chosen to remain in civil court, and endure possible condemnation by her community.  

Leah is another agunah who is being pressured to re-litigate issues already adjudicated in civil court. After a civil court reviewed evidence of her husband sexually molesting their child, the court issued a “no contact” order barring him from even seeing the child. Fearing to expose her child to further danger, Leah refuses to re-litigate any issue concerning her child in the beit din. The beit din therefore refuses to help her obtain a get. 

Yet another case is that of Sarah, stripped of custody of her children by a beit din, denied her alimony and pressured to pay her husband $50,000 because his family blames her for fines they incurred for illegal occupancy in a residential property. The rabbis offered no explanation as to which principles of law they applied and insist that settling the $50,000 extortion demand is a precondition to the get, leaving Sarah an agunah.   

Ideally, Jews should resort to batei din to resolve disputes, both monetary and matrimonial. In theory, batei din offer speedier and less expensive divorces than civil courts. However their flaws far outweigh their possible benefits. Batei din constitute a totally unmonitored legal system. Their judges are self-appointed and adhere to no consistent rules of procedure; they are not accountable to anybody. There is no rabbinic appellate court to review questionable beit din decisions. Reversing their decisions in civil court is expensive and difficult if not impossible. Not surprisingly, many observant Jews choose instead to turn to civil court.

It is only agunot, who need a get in order to remarry and not produce mamzerim [illegitimate children], who are being forced to litigate in beit din.      

It is clear to us that divorcing women should avoid batei din and avail themselves of civil courts instead. Civil courts, while far from perfect, are sounder than any beit din we are aware of. They ensure that due process is granted to both parties. Their decisions automatically have the force of law. Their proceedings take place in open court and are recorded. Appellate courts permit those who feel they have received unjust decisions another chance to be heard. And, most important to victims of domestic violence, they have the power to issue Orders of Protection, and to enforce their decisions. 

New York State, providing greater protection to Jewish women and children than batei din, has enacted laws designed to protect agunot from extortion and motivate men to grant a get. True, these laws do not always result in a get, but neither does going to a beit din.   

Sadly, our community has not been dispensing justice in its own courts. Unless and until major change occurs, agunot must be permitted to go to civil court without being punished by a seruv.  Batei din must stop informing agunot that they will only help them secure a get if they drop all civil litigation. The Orthodox community must demand better from its batei din; the time has come.

Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut are longtime advocates for agunot in the community.

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