By Barbara Sofer
August 16, 2019
In the United States, couples like a June wedding. Not just because of the weather. The month is named for the pagan Roman goddess Juno, the mythological protector of women, interestingly hinting at the vulnerability of women who go from single to married.
In Israel, where 70% of weddings take place in the rainless summer, we're currently in the midst of high season for weddings, a favorite date being Tu Be'av (beginning August 15 eve this year), when, back in the time of the Mishna (3rd century), young women danced in white dresses to catch the eye of a suitor they knew nothing about. Despite the fixed format, every Israeli wedding is different. Couples find nuances to express their individuality. I'm easily swept up in the drama and joy. I love them all.
But the elation I feel at weddings is partly due to what, back in literature studies, we'd call "suspension of disbelief." This is a term coined by 19th-century poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge about our ability to suspend judgment about the probability of the narrative. Coleridge was a contemporary of the authors of romantic novels, like our beloved Jane Austen, whose domestic narratives are resolved in felicitous and happy-ever-after marriages.
Real life is different. Many women still need protection, not by Juno.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the total divorce rate in Israel, which is an estimate of the chances that a marriage will ever end in divorce, is around 27%. While the weddings are universally beautiful, the divorces are not. Most are acrimonious. Many are nightmarish. Because marriage and divorce are within the province of the religious authorities, the very motifs that are so inspiring in marriage are infuriating in divorce, leaving women in particular feeling powerless and exploited. Built into the system is easy access to extortion in which a woman can be trapped for years or decades if she doesn't give in to demands, financial or other, by her spouse. Sometimes she's stuck even if she does give in.
We could fill these pages with tragic stories of agunot, not the classically defined agunot, wives whose husbands are lost at sea, but those waiting for years to get their religious divorces, because of intransigent spouses.
Instead, here's one with an unusual happy ending.
Lisette (not her real name), a comely and religiously observant Jewish young woman, was married in her home country in Europe. Within a week of her marriage, before she and her husband had finished celebrating the week of parties called sheva brachot, he punched her. When their first Shabbat as a married couple came around, her supposedly observant mate drove his car. Life got worse. He threw food at her. He raped her.
Lisette escaped and went home to her parents. Then her repentant husband convinced her to try again. The abuse returned and was worse. Finally, after three years, she filed for divorce.
He refused and refused and refused.
Tired of waiting, anchored in the dismal harbor of a European helpless rabbinical court, Lisette decided to get on with her life and make aliyah. In Israel, she approached the Israeli rabbinate to free her, but there was nothing it could do, she was told.
In Israel, like every aguna, Lisette heard the tragic story of Tzvia Gorodetsky, trapped in an unbearable marriage where she sustained injuries from fists and acid. Her abusive husband sat in prison for 18 years on rabbinical sanctions, but still refused to sign. And then, as reported by Jeremy Sharon in The Jerusalem Post in 2018, Gorodetsky, a mother of four and by then 54, was freed.
A Jerusalem-based nonprofit called Center for Women's Justice suggested the creation of an alternative panel of religious judges who might find a way to free her. Such rabbis would have to be of irreproachable scholarly and religious qualifications. They would have to be secure enough and brave enough to stand up to the criticism of the state-sanctioned rabbinical courts, which would see their authority challenged.
Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Israel prize-winner, Talmudist, and the descendant of an esteemed line of rabbis, accepted this sacred challenge. So did two other qualified religious judges, who prefer to keep their identities private.
In their first case, the three-judge court determined that Gorodetsky's husband had gone into the marriage under false pretenses, not revealing his violent personality disorder. She wouldn't have married him if she had known what torture was ahead. In rabbinical terms, this is called mekah ta'ut, an error, and grounds for retroactively annulling the marriage even though the couple had lived together for nine years. In addition, careful review of the wedding turned up that Tzvia Gorodetsky had paid for the wedding ring herself, not her husband, technical grounds for questioning the validity in Jewish law of the marriage.
The panel wouldn't replace the rabbinate's courts of divorce, but could be summoned in rare cases that met strict criteria for annulling a marriage. In the year since the private court was first convened, only one additional aguna had her marriage annulled. In that case, one of the obligatory wedding witnesses, who must be observant Jews, turned out to be a pedophile, disqualifying him and invalidating the marriage.
Lisette learned only after her marriage that her husband had served time in prison for abusing his first wife. Convened by the Center for Women's Justice, Sperber and his fellow judges ruled after weeks of deliberation that she wouldn't have entered such a relationship had he disclosed his sordid past. Again, they were not granting a divorce, but dissolving a marriage that was a tragic error in the first place. The learned judges knew that such methodology had been used before in Jewish history to free women from non-normative marriages.
Although the current Israeli rabbinate doesn't accept this reasoning and doesn't recognize the private court's action, Lisette, 37, is one of the brides who recently stood under an Israeli marriage canopy. An Orthodox rabbi officiated, and her own large and observant family surrounded her. I celebrate the breakthrough, but as an observant Israeli woman, I wish we didn't need private organizations and private courts to come up with creative and compassionate solutions to protect women.
While I am delighting in the weddings I'm attending this season, I'm going to take a moment to whisper a prayer for those women whose marriages were the opposite of happily-ever-after and who need the freedom to move on.
I'm thinking that the traditional breaking of the glass that recalls the destruction of our Temples is the exact moment for such a prayer.