Orthodox Jewish Divorce Is Complicated And So Is Being a Woman

Orthodox Jewish divorce (get) has made many headlines recently, which has caused me – as an Orthodox Jewish woman – to do a lot of thinking about the issue itself and about being a woman in general. A few weeks ago, a group of rabbis were arrested and charged with kidnapping and torturing recalcitrant husbands who refused to free their “chained” wives (agunos) from their marriages – essentially vigilante justice towards abusive husbands.

Women whose husbands refuse to give them gets are thankfully pretty rare, but every case that exists is one too many and involves human suffering. How then, do we come to terms with the fact that the Torah, which we believe is perfect and meant for all times, could allow a man to take advantage of his wife through their marriage contract? I don’t have any simple or perfect answers to this question, but this is what I’m working through as I try to make (some) sense of it for myself:

First off, it’s important to note that while a man technically may be able to withhold a get from his wife, the Torah certainly doesn’t allow it. The Torah on one foot (according to Hillel) is “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” There is no Torah justification for holding someone hostage – in the literal sense or the marital one.

Second, we must understand the purpose of Jewish marriage before we can understand Jewish divorce. The Jewish marriage contract – the ketubah – is essentially a bill of rights for a woman – what her husband owes to her. In the musical Les Miserables, the character Fontine sings her heart out: “He slept a summer by my side, he filled my days with endless wonder, he took my childhood in his stride, but he was gone when autumn came.” Fontine falls in love with a guy and he gets her pregnant, but then her man skips town, and she is left to care for their child all by herself which does not end well!

Fontine’s story is horrible, but unfortunately, not so an uncommon. This was (and sadly still is in some places) the scenario for countless women until the ketubah came out and told men “You cannot just use her and move on to the next one. Becoming intimate with a woman means that you must take care of her – with food and clothing and sexual satisfaction.” (Yes, thousands of years ago the rabbis considered sexual satisfaction to be one of a woman’s rights in marriage!) The ketubah was an amazing break through for women when it was introduced to the world.

Also, unlike other religions, Judaism has always allowed for divorce. It’s something we try to avoid doing, if possible, but the Torah recognizes that divorce is sometimes necessary. A man who wants to become intimate with a woman must provide her with the aforementioned things, but if the relationship doesn’t work out and he wants to divorce her, he can’t just leave her with nothing. The ketubah also requires him to pay a sum of money for divorcing her.

Now the divorce process used to just be in the man’s hands because the marriage, essentially, was everything he was giving her, and no woman in ancient times would have wanted to be without a husband – no matter how bad he was. That is actually why polygamy used to be allowed. It was never considered ideal, but it was necessary in a world where women couldn’t survive without husbands. And in an era with lots of wars, there weren’t always enough husbands to go around.

But then society started changing and women could survive without being married, so the rabbis (headed up by Rebbeinu Gershom), on their own accord, made things stricter for themselves and took away their right to marry more than one woman. To prevent this decree from causing flippant divorces previously unnecessary, the rabbis also decreed that a woman may not be divorced against her will. In the most extreme cases, however, like if a wife goes missing, or refuses to accept a get for an extended period, a Jewish court will only permit a man to remarry after one hundred rabbis (heter meah rabbanim)  agree to issue an exemption. I spoke to my rabbi over Shabbos about this. I suggested that maybe we should just take away this 100 rabbi clause for men – make ’em all suffer! He noted that trapping men in marriages with unreasonable wives wouldn’t help the cause for freeing women from unreasonable husbands. I begrudgingly concurred.

As I was working through these issues: the need to keep the guy around when many men have a tendency to use a woman and leave her, the need for polygamy in a time when women couldn’t survive unmarried, I realized what was really bothering me: It’s because women were created to be more vulnerable than men that we  get taken advantage of. Yes, it would be nice if the Torah also had a clause to end marriages unilaterally in extreme cases (so it’s not like I have a perfect answer to that), but throughout history men have done a whole lot of damage to women.

Comedian Louis C.K. actually has a hysterical bit on this phenomenon called “There is no greater threat to women than men.” It’s funny because it’s true, but the truth is so very painful. That’s not to say that women never hurt men and it’s not to say that women aren’t strong beings. (We are in SO many ways!) But at the end of the day – due to our size and the fact that we bear children – up against men, we are left vulnerable. I started looking up some statistics on just how many women get hurt by men. The numbers were staggering! In a recent New York Times article, it was reported that, “Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report…One-third of women said they had been victims of a rape, beating or stalking, or a combination of assaults.” On another site, I saw that women are more than three times as likely as men to get stalked, 87% of the stalkers identified by their victims were male, and 62% of women were stalked by someone they were once romantic with.

Why did God make women more susceptible to getting hurt? That is a really big question. God also made certain races “less desirable” throughout history and certain people with handicaps. I cannot answer the question as to why God made the world imbalanced as it is except to say that once we see the imbalances it is up to us to correct them. It is up to us to do good. It is up to us to repair. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick said “to truly enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this word that is not what it is merely by contrast.” When there is lacking, there is the opportunity for giving. Would I have designed the world like that if it were up to me? Of course not. But I am not God, and I cannot understand or justify human suffering.

What I do understand, though, is that the Torah has always commanded us to “not mistreat the widow or orphan” and to “love the stranger.” We have been exhorted to help the weak and oppressed. Jewish law has the ability to adapt somewhat and has adapted in changing societal situations to protect women from the men who try to hurt them. But because we have no centralized Jewish court in the diaspora, there is less that we can do. (The halachic pre-nup is a solution which has worked 100% of the time since it came into use twenty years ago and requires the man to pay a a steep monetary fine for every day he insists on staying married to his wife who no longer wants to be married to him.)

In modern-day Israel, rabbinical courts have the power to sentence a husband to prison, and to impose additional penalties within prison such as solitary confinement to compel him to grant his wife a get. Rabbinical courts outside of Israel do not have power to enforce such penalties. Instead some will beat up the men – like the recent vigilante case. Others take to social media to wage their wars to freedom.

We cannot explain why the imbalances exist, but it is up to us to support people everywhere who are hurting because of them….


NOTE: An earlier version of this article said that heter me’ah rabbanim let men marry a second woman. It has since been edited.

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  • Avatar photo Noah Scott Palmer says on November 14, 2013

    A very wise and informative commentary. Thank you.

    I can suggest an answer to your query about why God made women "more susceptible to getting hurt." Women, just like men, are finite beings. To be finite means we have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. We are limited; only God is unlimited. Women have the power to bring new life into the world, a power that no man has. Men can lift heavy objects and throw spears farther than women. Both sexes have vulnerabilities to certain types of harm.

    Neither sex is more powerful than the other, but God gives men a responsibility to protect, love, and care for women. Men who shirk or abuse that responsibility cause hurt to the women who God has ordained them to protect.

  • Avatar photo Emily D. says on November 14, 2013

    Dear Allison,
    While I respect and support JITC, and I see that you have thoughtfully tried to explain the get situation, sometimes, the laws and rules are simply wrong. That men don’t need a get and can extort from women to give one, or out of spite, not give one, clearly is not in the spirit of Judaism as you say.
    No explanations about history can condone this. Keep in mind that men wrote the Torah, the commentary and continue to, in the Orthodox world, rationalize the existence of cruel situations. I never understood why commentary and changes in practice which are really interpretations (made by men) stopped hundreds of years ago…. what made that time so much more profound than this time?
    Thanks Allison for your good work.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 14, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Emily. You are free to believe that the Torah is man written, but Jewish tradition says it’s from God and that is what I believe. Since that is my belief, I grapple with the way Jewish law plays out in the world when people abuse the system.

      Jewish law DOES continue to develop, however it is easier to make things stricter (i.e ADD a ban on something that was permitted – i.e. ban polygamy ) than it is to REMOVE an existing mitzvah (i.e. the man giving the get).

      The thing that I do know is that there are a lot of very good rabbis (and other religious Jews) out there trying to help those who suffer in these instances and those are the types of people who inspire me…

      • Avatar photo Judy f says on September 11, 2018

        Hi thanks for addressing this matter.. I’m separated for 2.5 years after 18 years of abuse physical sexual verbal emotional… the rabbonim thankfully helped me out of the marriage- now however I am tied, he refuses to give me a get, doesn’t give me a cent for his 8 children k”h… I’m feeling so trapped and since he left I’ve been through another trauma so I totally confirm what you wrote about women going through multiple traumas.. is there any way we can scream even louder n put a stop to the continued abuse? I can’t thank you enough for bringing this up… at least someone’s talking for me/us… loads of continued success on your vital crucial blog

  • Avatar photo Breindel Wood says on November 14, 2013

    A woman is given the ketuvah and the man is vulnerable to having to provide protection, love, care, food, shelter, and then have his wife take his children and leave him. The get is the counter balance to the ketuvah.

  • Avatar photo Dan M says on November 14, 2013

    “the Torah recognizes that divorce is sometimes necessary and believes it must be a mutual decision. Marriage begins with mutual agreement and ends with mutual agreement. This was also good for the woman. Her husband couldn’t just drop her when he got bored with her. They had to both agree to end things and then he had to pay her a sum of money for divorcing her.’
    This ignores the fact that according to Torah law the woman’s consent is not necessary. It is only after the c. 10th c. ban of Rabbenu Gershom that the notion of female consent was actualized. I hope that we continue moving forward, while remaining true to our traditions.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on November 14, 2013

      thanks you, Dan M. i thought i had clarified the issues by speaking to several rabbis before posting but i was told that i got this point wrong. i have now edited this section and will ask people to re-read.

  • Avatar photo Michael Feigin, Esq says on November 14, 2013

    I thought I would add a few points to the topic, since it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. I also come from a secular “equality” background where everything is equal, or supposed to be, and I am now frum, having rejected that premise.

    First, one of G_d’s answer to Job is that if everything were equal and no one could hurt another, so too, there would be no heroes. There would be no one to “make things right”. If we start destroying every creature that could hurt one another, the highest life forms would be worms and maggots and it wouldn’t be much of a world. If we truly want equilibrium … that’s death, or what cosmologists call “heat death” when everything is totally equal. So too, with poor people, … the Torah tells us there will always be poor people, but it’s the job of those with more to give to them. G_d could have made a world where everyone has enough money, but then, we wouldn’t have a chance to be like G_d … to be partners in the giving.

    Concerning relationships between people, it’s the same sort of thing. Every relationship teaches us an aspect of creation and our relationship with G_d. For example, a father-son relationship or friend relationship … it’s a reflection of an aspect of G_d and helps us understand. A husband a wife relationship is like G_d giving the Torah at Mt. Sinai to the Jews, where the Jews are referred to as the ‘kallah’ (wife) and G_d as the ‘chosson’ (husband). The ‘kallah’ cannot exit from the covenant, but the chosson could. However, this also comes with other things – the chosson must support the kallah and this can be enforced by courts. Actually, the Gemora tells us (Brochos, 5th perek) that this is only for the benefit of the wife. She can choose to forgo this, but the man can’t choose not to support her.

    Now, taking the two together … what happens when the woman is being hurt? This could mean she isn’t getting her support or isn’t able to get out. Well, we’re supposed to be the ‘hero’ and step in and fix it. The system has some problems due to the limitations of the American legal system and powers to enforce giving a Get … but this is also readily solvable with arbitration agreements, giving a Beis Din power to adjudicate the matter, enforceable in the courts of land … we calls these pre-nuptial agreements. (The other option is a cattle prod, but…) As you mentioned, since the time of Rabbeinu Gershom, the woman also has to agree to receive the Get. Both parties must agree.

    None of this lessens the pain when something goes wrong, but I think it does help put it into perspective. We know that it’s all from G_d and we are given the tools to help, but we can’t always solve every problem. My children, if I have anything to say about it, will certainly be signing pre-nuptial agreements.

    On final comment on polygamy – it usually doesn’t work so well (there’s a mishnah in yevomos that says we trust a woman’s testimony that her husband died for herself, but not for her co-wives because she might just be that hurtful against her other co-wives by having illegitamate children just so another co-wife does also). However, when you see the “shidduch crisis” … many older single girls who want to have a family and want to have children. If she could choose to be in a loving relationship with a man, and have her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs met, wouldn’t that be better than living alone her whole life?

  • Avatar photo Mom says on November 15, 2013

    W O W! Allison!!! Your very thoughtful article/blog has brought out some very thoughtful comments from others, especially lawyer, Michael Feigin. This one is particularly good…one of your best! Way to go, my dear daughter!
    Love you LOTS! Mommy

  • Avatar photo Tobin says on November 15, 2013

    Very insightful Allison. You’re a great writer. I read the article regarding the couple. My sort of takeaway is-we as a jewish community need to bring these issues to the forefront. In my opinion, there is a tendency to sweep difficult topics under-the-carpet, in an attempt to make everything appear problem-free. So not the case! We struggle just like everyone else.

  • Avatar photo Steve Kendrick says on November 15, 2013

    I have always felt that G_d teaches us to respect each other. Judaism or Christianity if the relationship does not work out, the other person deserves respect. There is never an excuse for abuse .. physical or mental. Unfortunately marriage teaches each partner, the vulnerabilities of the other. We must always resist any use of this knowledge. May G_d bless all of our relationships. G_d Bless!

  • Avatar photo AJ says on November 16, 2013

    Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn, who many regard as a talmid chacham (he’s the author of a sefer that’s an index to the Igros Moshe), has a disturbing guest post (by “Rick”) on his blog. It says the position of ORA (The Organization for the Resolution of Agunos) “completely contradicts accepted Jewish law and practice over many centuries.” One of the comments (and I believe he controls whether comments appear), by EmesLeYaacov says “ORA is a militant feminist group, operating completely contrary to Halacha, that firmly believes in the concept of divorce on demand.” Is this position – that ORA is a terrible organization – common among Ultra-orthodox Jews?

  • Avatar photo Sara says on November 16, 2013

    I read the Torah when I was twelve. I’ll admit, a lot of the laws regarding women bothered me. For example, I remember reading that if a man raped a girl who wasn’t engaged or married to another man, he had to give her father a bride price and marry her himself. What ticked me off about this, is that it seemed like just as much, if not more, of a punishment for the girl than it was for her attacker. She had been brutalized by this man, and now she had to live with him for the rest of her life. ‘Hardly seems fair. But then, I started thinking about it terms of the culture, and I realized, as horrible as it sounds, it really was the best solution. After all, women needed husbands and it was unlikely any other man would marry her after that. Plus he was stuck having to provide for all her needs, since he couldn’t divorce her. Now that I think about it, this law might have deterred many rapes. One thing I still don’t get to this day, is that if a man rapes a betrothed girl in the city, the girl is to be executed along with her attacker, her crime being not screaming for help. This seems to indicate that not screaming is an implied consent to the sexual intercourse and doesn’t factor in that she could have been just to frightened to make a sound. Besides, I don’t think any woman would actually consent to a sexual assault. The reason I struggle with how unfair this law sounds, is because I believe it comes from God, who I also believe to loving, merciful and just.

  • Avatar photo Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on November 17, 2013

    Two things: first, the rapist had to marry his victim. She was under no obligation to marry him. She had the option to consent or refuse but he lost the right to refuse when he violated her. (He also lost the right to divorce her against her will.)

    The second just means that the court has to evaluate the circumstances in order to determine whether the act was against her will (and therefore rape) or consensual (and therefore adultery because betrothal is a stage of marriage). The “in the city/cry out” thing is a parameter, not the full extent of the matter.

    • Avatar photo Beth Jacobs says on December 6, 2017

      If she declined to marry him, he got lashes (malkos), an extremely painful punishment that some did not survive.

  • Avatar photo tanya says on January 3, 2014

    my goodness, no, no, no, and no again – god did NOT make different ‘races’ less desirable. people’s prejudices did that all by themselves – racist bigots of any stripe do not get opt out clauses. we are all the same, all one people – false divisions are what has caused all human suffering throughout history.

    as for having to provided with food, clothing, and money by a man – i am not a prostitute and can earn those things for myself without having to exchange myself for them.

    vulnerability – no. i am no more vulnerable than any other woman or man on the street – and considerably less due to being healthy, tall, and early 30’s.

    in my experience, men like to be cherished too – and to feel protected by their loved ones. beyond that, what we all need is as much equality as possible. and beyond all doubt, no distinction between men/women, fathers/mothers, husbands/wives should be made in law codes.

    one reason most armies for instance don’t have women on the front line in the same regiments is not because we are weaker, but because we are not only sufficiently capable & generally more agile – and yet the male soldiers still saw us (the few times it was tried) as needing extra protection – resulting in vastly higher death & casualty rates for them.

    putting someone on a pedestal and treating them like glass is patronizing and suffocating. i am very far from a bra burner – i wear make up daily, use wax, dye my hair, and love fashion (i have more shoes than it’s tasteful to admit) – but i do think a lot of people round here should read ‘the female eunuch’ and ‘the beauty myth’. patriarchy is vile – and ironically it harms men as well as women. time to throw it out where it belongs.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 6, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, Tanya but I wasn’t trying to absolve humans from racism and treating others badly, simply noting that if we believe that God created the world, He made us in a way that people are not only different but would form hierarchies of what “we” consider “better” and “worse.” It’s a bigger discussion like “why did God allow evil into the world?” It doesn’t take away man’s responsibly from committing evil but it does mean that God believed that allowing evil to exist is part of the “plan” which is hard to understand.

      Nowadays most women, thankfully, can care for themselves. This was not always the case. And I disagree that women are no more vulnerable than men. We are the ones left with a pregnancy after an intimate time together – men can just disappear. We’re also physically weaker (in most cases) and can be physically abused because of that.

      I DO believe in equality and I believe that men want to be loved and cherished just as women do. But I know that when I’m home alone at night, if my husband is out, I feel more vulnerable to the possible “evils” that are out there and my husband sleeps easily. Maybe I’m just a bigger worrier (scratch that – I definitely am!) but I believe there IS a vulnerability that many women carry around knowing they can be hurt by men whereas men don’t have that same fear of being hurt by women in the same way.

      • Avatar photo tanya says on January 7, 2014

        i can your point. it does make sense. but as the mother of a son, i worry far more about the thought of him growing up than i would for a daughter – it’s young men who get into fights, who are most likely to be attacked, to have accidents. i think women are stronger, and more measured – we don’t tend to end up in accident and emergency in the course of a night out, in order to have a broken nose sorted or glass removed. if you ever have the misfortune of a trip to casualty on a weekend/holiday – it’s nearly all young men. so are most murder victims.

        i am also a worrier – but mainly about others. one tip i will give you which works for me – it’s both a psychological comfort and an actual one – carry your car/house keys in your hand around town. you have the ‘comfort’ of knowing you can escape (which comes from being able to drive i’d say) & somehow having a little bit of ‘home’ wherever you are, people are more likely to think your house is nearby and you aren’t alone/unknown, and as a last resort keys can do sufficient damage to someone who attacks you.

  • Avatar photo ABC says on April 20, 2015

    I won’t speak to why God or religion gave man the “privilege” of granting a “get”. But as a guy that’s been “through the system” I would like to make some points. When a woman chooses to use the court system to take her husband “to the cleaners”, and he says if you want a civil divorce that’s fine. If you want a Jewish divorce, let’s take all our other issues, (alimony, visitation) to a jewish court. The non-jewish divorce system is very much tilted in the womans favor. Someone saying the only card I have to play is my prerogative to give a jewish divorce, and I’ll play it for all it’s worth… May not be the nicest guy on the planet, but any average guy in his situation would do the same.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on April 21, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, ABC, but a get is not allowed to be used as leverage. There is no rabbinic literature in this way. And as we all know, there are men who don’t simply use the get as leverage – they use it to abuse. So, perhaps the better solution is to advocate for secular courts to be more balanced as opposed to abusing the Jewish court system.


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