The Value of a Chained Woman

CC via Wikimedia Commons

Deuteronomy 24:1 states, “If a man takes a wife and possesses her and she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, he writes her a Bill of Divorcement, hands it to her and sends her away from his house.” Based on this verse of the Torah, the entire decision to divorce or not was the husband’s. The wife did not even have to accept the divorce document, the Get. In later, Talmudic times, the Rabbis restricted the husband’s control and established rights and grounds for divorce for both parties. The Rabbis were becoming more aware of women’s issues and rights and mandated that the woman must willingly accept the Get.

I was raised in an Orthodox home. I was married in an Orthodox ceremony. So when my marriage crumbled and my husband and I were separated for enough time to realize that the marriage was irrevocably broken, I called an Orthodox rabbi to help with the Get proceedings. We were dealing with custody, relocation, and child support in the secular courts as one should do. My attorneys had advised me to get the Jewish divorce done with as quickly as possible. My husband had made it very clear that he would only work with one specific rabbi, so I called that rabbi and explained the situation. I said there was an order of protection. I said that I had not received any financial support. I said that I had moved back to my parents’ home with our child, and I went into other details about why we were divorcing, more specifically the physical and verbal abuse. The rabbi said he needed to speak with my husband and would call me back. He never did call me back. I called him back and nudged him about their conversation. His reply was, “He’s a good guy, and he will give the Get when he’s ready. I trust him.” I was horrified! Didn’t he listen to a word I had said to him earlier? Wasn’t he going to at least try to convince him to give the Get? I felt so hopeless. My hands were tied. There was nothing I could do. After all, as an Orthodox woman. I have no say in when my marriage is over. The decision is ultimately not mine.

The next few days were a flurry of court hearings and phone calls to different rabbis and activists in our marital city. All of which proved to be a dead end. No one would take on a case another rabbi was already involved in. The rabbi involved refused to budge. And I was stuck. When I returned home, I tried another approach, a fresh approach. I spoke to people who I thought had influence over my husband, people that he respected and whose opinions he took to heart. This course of action had mixed results: Some took it upon themselves the position of marriage counselor—these people had many fabulous ideas how I could better my marriage and be the perfect wife. Perhaps they thought it a good idea to push a battered woman back with her abusive husband. I politely excused them and let them know their help was no longer needed. Others let me know that they could not participate in convincing him to grant me the Get as they do not want to encourage divorce in the community. And others promised to help, but did nothing. There were a few good souls who attempted to mediate and convince him to give the Get, but my power-crazed husband wouldn’t hear anything of it. He was encouraged by his parents to keep on holding out. He had a rabbi allowing and feeding into this injustice. He had no reason to give in. And so he didn’t, ultimately for two-and-a-half years.

During all this, there were many hearings in Family Court. I was fortunate to have a very wise judge. She had a firm understanding of the law, a grasp on all the characters in her courtroom, and most importantly, the desire to do right by my child. This made all the difference in my case. I obtained a satisfying final judgment and it is obviously the best scenario for my son. At one such hearing, the Honorable Judge brought up the question of the Get. She asked me if had received my Jewish divorce yet, and when I replied no, she quickly turned to my husband and asked him why this was so. He bluntly responded that he will give it when everything is settled in this courtroom in order to ensure that he gets what he wants in regards to time-sharing and relocation. Obviously, no judge wants to hear this, for so many reasons. She was very visibly upset and explained in no uncertain terms that this is not how her courtroom is run. She decides what the outcome of the trial will be, she decides where the child will live, and how often the child will spend with each parent. She made the decision in her courtroom on that day to grant the civil divorce and to leave the other issues to be decided at a later date. She then ordered the Get to be given within 15 days or else he would be held in contempt of court. This is legally possible since the Get can be seen as an obstruction to the dissolution of the civil marriage. The Get was done by proxy within fifteen days. The judge was my ambassador, a representative, and protector for all women on that day. It was my personal miracle. I received my Get. Not through a rabbi, not through my ex-husband, but through the family court.

Throughout this entire two-and-a-half year waiting game, life continued on. I had my beautiful son to care for every day. I had a job to go to. We were busy, the hustle and bustle of everyday life kept me going. However, there was this one nagging thought that I could not get rid of and since no one could give me an answer, I stopped asking. It seemed that if there was no answer, my question was the reality—If I as a woman had no voice, no say, in when my marriage was over, did I really have any value as a Jew? I was not deemed credible nor trustworthy enough to make the most personal and crucial decision. The lack of trust in this decision violated my sense of self-worth. Perhaps, my ex-husband perverted and exploited the true intentions of the Torah. Perhaps, the law was set in place for sociological reasons at the time when women did not have property and any marriage was preferable over single-hood. But that answer does not satisfy me. Isn’t Torah supposed to transcend all time? If the Talmud could make the adjustments then, I say it’s high time we make some modifications now to protect all the women who suffer the same way I did. To protect women who do not have a miracle like I did. And to protect all women from ever suffering this way again.

We live in progressive times, when women’s rights are a constant dialogue and growth is being made. The various Jewish communities have instituted solutions that are compatible with their beliefs and ideals.  All Jewish couples looking to sign a ketubah must explore their options before getting married and demand that a structure is put in place to protect the bride in case of the worst. You know it won’t happen to you, and you’re probably right. But systematic change can only happen once everyone demands it for the sake of those who need it.

 

Rivka Joseph is a student at Cuyahoga Community College.

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