Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Of Aharon Friedman and the sexism of Jewish divorce

Recently the case of Michigan Congressman Dave Camp's aide, Aharon Friedman's refusal to grant his wife, Tamar Epstein, a get (a Jewish divorce) for over four years has been making headlines as a result of pressure from the Orthodox Jewish community and the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (an agunah is a woman who is "locked," unable to remarry because she cannot get a divorce from her husband or his death cannot be proven as in case of those killed in action with no body returned). There have been cases of women who have been "chained" to their husbands for upwards of ten years because according to Jewish law, the divorce has to be granted freely by the husband to the wife.

While I appreciate the efforts that have been made to free this woman from her husband and marriage, I'm dismayed that once again we're missing an opportunity to discuss what the real problem is. It's not that some men can be controlling jerks, refusing to give gets for a variety of manipulative reasons. It's that Jewish law doesn't recognize the wife's autonomy. It won't give her a divorce based on her wishes. She is still beholden to her husband and the wishes of rabbis. What these rabbis and Orthodox activists are doing with their online campaigns, petitions and protests outside the homes of recalcitrant husbands are merely short-term solutions. It doesn't address the inherent inequality that has landed the women in this unfortunate situation to begin with.

All of this--the problem of agunot, issues of abortion and birth control--are all part of the same larger problem that religious authority figures have with women acting autonomously over their own lives. I was taught that these laws were originally formulated to "protect" women from being wantonly cast aside by their husbands at a time in history when a woman was entirely dependent on a man to survive. However that is no longer the case, and anyway that sort protectionist bent is deeply steeped in misogyny. Just as the GOP wishes to shield women from tough, complicated decisions about their lives and bodies, Orthodox rabbis, even the most liberal ones, are trying to protect us from making decisions about our relationships. By not arguing for equalizing women's status in Jewish law so that when she walks into court  to sue for divorce, she can get one without "permission" from her soon-to-be ex-husband, they are merely perpetuating the status quo, which denies women equal rights. The protests and communal blacklisting still reinforce women's subordinate status, that she needs the backing of big strong men to achieve her ends.

I've always been proud that Judaism, unlike Christianity, has always held divorce as an option, that it has been sympathetic to human nature, realizing that sometimes people outgrow each other, that some relationships aren't meant to last for all time. (I'm also proud that Jews were early pioneers in the underground contraceptives industry--I'm a godless, feminist liberal, after all.) But society, for the most part, has caught up and surpassed more traditional forms of Judaism. My mother was able to go to civil court and divorce my father (though the decision to do so was mutual) without his say so. But in Jewish court, he had to be the one to grant her the document that would free her from their union. Forget progressive--how is that even current?

The discussion we should be having is not how we can twist this man's arm into granting his wife of a divorce, how we can create prenups that fine a man for not giving his wife a get. Those are merely band-aids, covering up what really ails the community.  We should be talking about how we can change the law so a woman can walk into court with her held high and walk out with a divorce in her hand that she didn't have to beg for, that she didn't have to be granted. That would be real progress.


Beno said...

Thank you. It pleases me to hear a yid speak some common sense.

Dvora Meyers said...

Thanks. I just can't stand the self-righteousness of some of these rabbis while ignoring their own complicity.

Jim Gutel said...

As a Gentile I found your column interesting and helpful in understanding the subject of Jewish religious divorce. However your gratuitous inaccurate slap at the GOP detracted from your argument.

Jim Gutel

Dvora Meyers said...

Jim thank you for your comment. I don't think my criticism of the GOP was at all gratuitous. In fact, it is very germane. The legislation that has been introduced and passed around the country in the realm of women's reproductive rights and healthcare is about denying women the right to self-determination, the right to get contraceptives so they can decide when/if they want to become mothers, which allows them to make choices regarding their careers. Similarly, the rabbis and Jewish law strip women of the right to move on with her life--to end a dead marriage. This right they reserve for the men alone. In both instances the patriarchy is seeking to limit the array of options that women have.

Yomin Postelnik said...

So you think that depriving a daughter of her father is less important than this? That's why this generation has so many problems.

As to the people against Friedman, they're thugs no matter who you support. They hurt women more than men.

The criminal organization referred to in the motion, Get ORA, recently attacked Michigan Congressman Dave Camp’s social media sites as well as his Wikipedia page. The following information was uncovered as a result:
In truth, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot is a front organization for the Beth Din of America, a group run by Mordechai Willig who famously covered up for convicted molester Baruch Lanner, transferring him from one division of NCSY (the National Council for Synagogue Youth) to another. Willig publicly apologized 14 years later, three years after his cover up was exposed by the Jewish Week, but went on to shockingly compare himself to King David in his apology, causing an outcry among all true orthodox rabbis who had long considered Willig and his Beth Din of America to be operating outside of the norms of Judaism [1].
According to authentic orthodox Jewish law, which the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot purports to represent, the Friedman case is a travesty of justice against Aharon Friedman. His wife has refused to settle custody in a manner that conforms with Jewish law (at least allowing him to see his daughter regularly). When no "heshkem gerushin" (consent ending all conflicts between man and wife) has been accomplished a get (bill of divorce) cannot be issued and any that may be issued can be invalid, a grave sin according to Judaism.
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot is in fact an organization that openly engages in illegal activities and terrorizes husbands who want to save their marriages or those who want a fair divorce. They openly admit to causing false arrest, such as in this press release [2].
"Chani called ORA in July of 2007, and we pursued an aggressive strategy to convince him to give the get. Using outside-the-box tactics, and in partnership with community lay-leaders, attorneys, and rabbis, ORA never gave up on Chani. Due to our coordination, her ex-husband served nine months in jail for withholding the get. However, he was eventually bailed out, and persisted in his recalcitrance. Eventually, we were able to get him incarcerated once again. This time, he had had enough. Chani is finally, finally free."
The organization clearly violates Jewish religious law and Jewish religious law demands the prosecution of their rabbis, Hershel Schachter, who has been excommunicated for his activities [3], Jeremy Stern and others.
• 1 Rabbi Admits to Errors - http://www.forward.com/articles/9345/
• 2 Get ORA Press Release - http://getora.org/Press/160pressrelease.html
• 3 http://mishpattsedek.com/Docs/SharMishpat-Niduy against schachter union sauer-English.pdf

Rabbi Benyamin Yosef said...

Be very careful about using the Beth Din of America for your GET or other religious issue. Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz both have seruv’s (contempt’s) issued against them. Prior judges on this court have had a multitude of problems. This court issues more seruv’s than any other Beth Din. Read more about it at www.thebethdin.com. Too many Beth Dins are corrupt and dishonest. Any Beth Din that issues bogus seruv’s for money or due to feminist pressure must be disbanded.