“The Trial of Viviane Amsalem:” An Orthodox Rabbi Responds
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited since it was originally published on May 27 to include feedback and updated statistics we heard from Orthodox women who are involved in the agunah crisis in Israel in a more intimate way than the author has been involved. While the author has had overall positive dealings with the rabbanut, these women we heard from, unfortunately, have had very troubling experiences.
Author’s Note: This article is a review of the film “Gett” as it was received by audiences in the United States. Although the article inevitably touches on the Agunah issues in Israel, it is a criticism of the film’s presentation of the issues and not an attempt to minimize the importance or scope of the issues themselves. I was invited to review a recent movie entitled “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” It was a bloodbath. People who had never met an Orthodox Jew began railing against the abusive nature of “these people.” Speakers used it as a platform to discuss everything from uneducated women to Sharia Law. One panelist later apologized to me in a private email that some of the ‘facts’ shared had been inaccurate and one woman at the theater accused me, a graduate of Lakewood Yeshiva, of ‘not really being Orthodox’ because I didn’t fit the stereotype presented by the movie. Although I was gratified to see people identifying with the pain of the Agunah and discussing solutions, I felt compelled to write the following article based on remarks that I shared in the theater.
As an Orthodox rabbi I have had the unfortunate opportunity to be involved in more than a few Orthodox Jewish divorces. While a divorce is inherently painful, the ancient and divine wisdom that it embodies is breathtaking. Despite the apparent irony, I have seen people walk away inspired from what is often the most intense afternoon that they will ever spend with an Orthodox Rabbi. It is a powerful process.
That isn’t to say that it is a pleasant experience. Neither is a funeral. But it is a meaningful, solemn and biblically legal way of separating two people who were previously joined together in the strongest religious bond known to mankind.
The description of the film doesn’t agree. It reads as follows:
“In Israel there is neither civil marriage nor civil divorce. Only rabbis can legitimate a marriage or its dissolution. But this dissolution is only possible with full consent from the husband, who in the end has more power than the judges. Viviane Amsalem has been applying for divorce for three years. But her husband Elisha will not agree. His cold intransigence, Viviane’s determination to fight for her freedom, and the ambiguous role of the judges shape a procedure in which tragedy vies with absurdity, and everything is brought out for judgment, apart from the initial request.”
To make a long story short, Viviane demands a get from Elisha, her husband of thirty years, who is controlling and possibly abusive. The Beis Din [Rabbinic Court] fails miserably and she only receives her get after several years and only after agreeing never to marry anyone else.
It is a sad story, albeit a fictional one. It is not a story about the Jewish laws of divorce; it is a story about incompetent judges who happen to be serving in a Jewish Court of Law. Jewish Courts of Law are not perfect but Orthodox Jews certainly don’t have the monopoly on incompetent arbitrators.
A quick fact check is in order:
In 2013 (the year prior to the filming of the movie), the Israeli rabbinate (according to their statistics) presided over 11,219 Jewish divorces. The average amount of time it took to complete a divorce was 96 days. Admittedly, some women who have dealt with the Israeli Rabbinic courts told us to be wary of taking these numbers at face value. According to the Rackman Center, which takes more cases into consideration, the overall average time for the completion of a divorce in Israel is fifteen months. That is a long time to wait, but it is not unreasonable when compared to the mandatory waiting period in Virginia of one year, and it is nowhere close to the three to five years of waiting portrayed in the film.
A women’s advocacy organization called “Mavoi Satum” cites one case in which the Rabbinate waited six years before imposing sanctions. Eventually Rabbi Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, stepped in and put a stop to the delays. It was a very sad situation but certainly not typical.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, a Rabbinic Court Advocate in Israel wrote about the film in the Forward. She felt that although it is “unlikely that all of the incidents would be concentrated in one specific woman’s case. Nevertheless, it is probable that one or more of the troublesome situations will arise in any given woman’s plea for freedom.” Dr. Levmore goes on to explain how the concept of “Ma’is Alai” is not a universally accepted grounds for coercion. Dr. Levmore makes the point that this film will help Rabbis and Judges empathize with the plight of the Agunos. As a case in point, the Rabbinate in Israel is screening the film for their judges to help them empathize and to educate them on possible abuses of the system and their negative reputation in the eyes of the Israeli public.
I have only respect for Dr. Levmore’s work in assisting Agunos in Israel and I hesitate to argue with her. I disagree, however, with the idea of creating a film that shows what amounts to a caricature of the actual situation and is perceived (at least in the United States) as the norm. It has the end result of portraying Rabbis as uncaring people and Orthodox men as abusive husbands. I think that both ethics and the women who are suffering would be better served by a more accurate presentation.
Director Shlomi Elkabetz claimed in an interview that there are 45,000 women in Israel waiting for a divorce. His calculations came about in a problematic way. There are 45,000 open cases in the Rabbinical Court according to statistics put out by the Rabbanut, but at least 35,000 of those cases are not even divorce cases. Of the approximately 10,000 women that have open divorce files (which includes those who just filed yesterday), the vast majority will be resolved in an expedient and efficient manner. Even one Agunah is too much and those who dispute the Rabbanut’s numbers explain that there are some who do not have open files, but the number of Agunos waiting over a year for their divorce is nowhere close to the unfounded figure cited by the director of the film.
The fact is that the Rabbinate in Israel has made some of the greatest strides in Jewish history to eradicate the Agunah issue. One in five women, according to mavoi satum, experience some form of extortion over their get, but the Rabbinate has ways to deal with it. A husband who refuses to grant a get has no chance of ever getting married by a competent rabbi. That is not always sufficient incentive, so the Rabbinate in Israel has developed a powerful arsenal: The Rabbinic Courts have the ability to freeze bank accounts, revoke driver’s licenses, seize property, and incarcerate husbands who refuse to grant a get. They can order solitary confinement or send a husband to a prison where they will not receive religious privileges granted to other prisoners. They can hire private investigators to track down recalcitrant husbands. They have even found ways to compel husbands who have fled the country to return and grant a get.
It is true that many women in Israel have reported disturbingly unprofessional behavior on the part of the Rabbinic judges and the Rackman Center has released some very troublesome statistics online. Still, as opposed to what the film would like you to think, women do regularly file for divorce and plead their cases before Rabbinic courts. In addition, there are male and female “Rabbinic Advocates” (some of whom are secular Jews) who stand ready to represent their clients in a professional, effective, and empathetic manner.
In their eagerness to prove a point, the writers of the film give us an absurd scenario in which the husband does not have a driver’s license because “he is afraid he will drive on the Sabbath”. They create a character with no checking accounts or credit cards that can be frozen. They do not explain why the husband is released from prison even as he continues to refuse to cooperate. They also create a Halachic impossibility of a woman who accepts a get on the condition that she will never marry again.
In addition, it is difficult to watch the film without being revolted by the bigotry of the film makers. All of the ‘good guys’ are secular; all of the ‘bad guys’ are religious. Sephardic men are portrayed as abusive and controlling husbands. The negative stereotyping was unnecessary for the plot and very disturbing.
Are there women out there waiting for their Jewish divorce? Yes, and it is heartbreaking and tragic. Is this film an accurate portrayal of the issues or of the Israeli Rabbinate? Not in the way it has been received here in the United States.
I can see where a non-Orthodox person would want to move in and change the system, but they need to remember that they are the ones making the change to an age old and wise tradition. They can lobby for better oversight, better judges, civil marriages, or other forms of recognition, but they cannot justify a film like “Gett” that inaccurately blames Jewish Tradition and the entire Israeli Rabbinate for the behavior of three fictional judges and one imaginary husband.
I have personally lost sleep over the Agunah issue and have put many hours into dealing with recalcitrant husbands. Any rabbi should. In addition, I have encouraged couples to sign Halachic prenuptials which effectively give the American Jewish Courts legal basis to deal with recalcitrant husbands. I have shed tears and tried to be part of the solution. But not at the price of abandoning a divine tradition that we have clung to and that has served us well for thousands of years.
In closing, I share a touching story about Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the recently deceased Chief Rabbi of Israel: Rav Yosef was once rushed to the hospital for an acute medical condition. Israel’s top surgeons examined him and quickly determined that the only solution was a risky surgery and they scheduled it for that afternoon. Since there were three hours left until the surgery, Rav Ovadiah asked to be taken home and brought back in three hours.
Why did he go home? It turned out that there was a woman – an agunah – whose husband had disappeared. Halachically it was unclear if she would be able to remarry. Rav Ovadiah was in the middle of researching and writing a ruling that would allow her to get remarried halachically. He knew that if he died ‘under the knife’ there would be nobody else with the authority and the knowledge to write the ruling to help that woman.
We need to follow the Chief Rabbi’s example. The ultimate solution for all women will definitely not come as a result of bigotry and misrepresentation. It will be a product of genuine caring and heartfelt concern and a willingness to make changes where changes can and should be made.
In his classic Lecha Dodi, the original Shlomo Elkabetz compared the Jewish people to G-d’s bride. If we can help every woman find the joy that she deserves, G-d will reflect that love in his compassion for us. He will wipe away all of our tears and we will know of no further sorrow.