LOOKING AROUND: The Esthers among us
By Barbara Sofer
(March 1) Israeli Mother's Day, renamed Family Day, is the anniversary
of the death of Henrietta Szold. Honoring a woman who never gave birth herself,
but who parented tens of thousands of children through Youth Aliya, is a
magnificent expression of the Jewish spirit.
Twelve days later, Adar 13 is the Fast of Esther, and International Aguna
Day. That the Jewish people cannot solve this degrading problem is an ignominy
to us all.
I approach International Aguna Day with despair, sickened by the stories
of women whose marriages were calamitous and whose attempts to get divorced
were even worse. As an observant Jew, I am distraught by the tyranny of the
rabbinical courts. The Jewish law that I observe, honor, promote and encourage
other Jewish women to observe is the same code - when narrowly interpreted
- that puts Jewish women in peril of extortion, of being unable to remarry
and bear children legitimately because they cannot get a divorce.
Because Orthodox women so keenly feel the discrepancy between the Torah
we love and the power it gives to unscrupulous men, it is no surprise that
most of the volunteers in Mevoi Satum, which provides emotional and fiscal
support, and Yad La'isha (The Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline)
Their clients, of course, are more eclectic. No woman, no matter how religious
or secular, is exempt from the despotism of the rabbinical courts. Is it
any wonder that, despite a growing population, fewer Jewish marriages are
taking place in Israel every year?
Spend a few hours with the rabbinical court attorneys of Yad La'isha for
Jewish consciousness raising. Lest we plunge into despair - the wrong sentiment
for the month of Adar - let's look at a few of the hard-won victories for
agunot in 5761.
Recently, Yad La'isha helped a Hassidic woman get a divorce after 10 years of court battles with her unhinged husband.
In another case, the rabbinical court awoke from its Rip Van Winkle sleep
only when Yad La'isha sued for damages in the secular court. Just as the
secular court was about to impose a fine on a man for violating the personal
autonomy of his wife - a landmark decision - the rabbinical court came up
with a settlement plan.
Not long ago, Jerusalemites were treated to the scene of Yad La'isha's head, attorney Susan Weiss,
and rabbinical court attorney Sarah Markowich chasing a noncompliant husband
through the city after he slipped out of "a guarded courtroom." (They caught
WOMEN have fought to get the courts to apply sanctions to
men who refuse to grant divorces. Yes, sanctions are being used more frequently,
although not quickly or strictly enough. The recalcitrant husband of one
of Yad La'isha's clients budged after years of intransigence because his
credit card would be revoked. For others, jail sentences do the trick, but
not for all.
Judges can impose additional hardships. In one recent case, a rabbinical
judge literally wept when the court took away the tefillin from a "religious"
prisoner who refused to grant a divorce. Dayanim - save those tears! The
same man who wanted to "bind them for a sign upon his hand" also wanted to
bind his wife for a sign around his ego.
Even when sanctions are effective, we can take no cheer in them. Violating
the civil rights of men can't be the only way our rabbis can dissolve a marriage.
As a schoolgirl in Connecticut, I used to feel sorry for my Catholic girlfriends
who might need papal dispensation for a divorce. Naive, I could never have
imagined that my own tradition nourished such callousness.
This year, protesters organized by ICAR, a large coalition of women's organizations,
will gather outside Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle, asking: "Who is really in
bondage?" In the prison are nine men who have opted to live behind bars rather
than free their wives.
The other day, I was talking to the wife of one of these prisoners. Let's
call her Esther; like many agunot, she's afraid to use her real name. Esther
married when she was a vulnerable new immigrant. At first she mistook her
husband's outbursts as a phase. His moodiness turned to paranoia, and then
to paranoid schizophrenia.
When Esther's husband is not on medication, he refuses to give her a divorce
because he believes he's the Messiah and messiahs don't get divorced. While
medicated, he refuses to divorce her because he's ornery. Can't the rabbis
free this woman and find a more appropriate rehabilitative setting than a
Esther expressed her disappointment so well: "I used to think that the loopholes
in secular legal systems helped criminals get away with crime. I thought
loopholes in Judaism were there so rabbis could do 'the right and the just.'"
Like many agunot, Esther is receiving moral and financial support from Mevoi
Satum. The attorneys of Yad La'isha are seeking loopholes in her case. These
fine organizations and others who are working on this problem deserve our
backing, but their work will never be enough. Our rabbis have to find sweeping
solutions within the scope of the law.
Certain rabbis have expressed their belief that the aguna problem is like
getting cancer: there's not much you can do about it, but accept the greater
wisdom of the Creator. To me, their definition of the "source of all blessing"
as an oppressor of women is an odious desecration.
Rabbis, wake up, or relief and deliverance will come from elsewhere.
The protest on Thursday at 10 a.m. has been called to gain public attention
and to get the rabbis to face the consequences of their shortsightedness.
Imagine the impact on the religious courts if every Judaism-loving woman
and man in the country were circling the prison walls. On the Fast of Esther
we remember Queen Esther's plea for the support of the Jews of Shushan.
The Esthers among us cry out for our support.
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post [March 1, 2001]
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