The invasion of Kabul in 2021 meant that a Jewish woman in Israel was finally free.
When the last Jew of Afghanistan, Zabulon Simantov, needed to flee the Taliban he had to face up to his wife from whom he was estranged for more than 20 years. Up until this point he had refused to provide her with a gett, the writ of Jewish divorce. She had been living with their two daughters in Israel as an agunah, a woman chained to a dead marriage. Faced with the reality that he may be subject to serious sanctions for gett refusal, he finally released his now ex-wife from their marriage and in doing so was able to win his own freedom from the Taliban. This divorce was facilitated by none other than the Sydney Beth Din led by Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, and was the first ever Jewish divorce enacted via Zoom. It was an extraordinary gett in extraordinary circumstances.
Gett refusal, the refusal by one spouse to grant a Jewish divorce, is a serious problem in the Jewish community in Australia and internationally. It not only causes immense emotional pain for the affected individuals, but it also undermines the integrity of Jewish marriage and the institution of the Jewish family.
The problem of gett refusal, also known as “agunot” or “chained women”, is not new. It has been an issue for centuries, and despite efforts to address it, it persists today. One reason for this is that the traditional Jewish legal system, known as halachah, grants a significant amount of power to the husband in the divorce process. Under halachah, only the husband can initiate a divorce, and only he can grant the gett, or Jewish bill of divorce. This means that if a husband is unwilling to grant a gett, his wife is essentially trapped in the marriage, unable to move on with her life or remarry.
Although women can also refuse to receive the gett and in that way prevent the husband from exiting the marriage, the consequences for men and women in these situations vary greatly. If the husband re-partners and establishes a family with his new partner, these children can be fully included in Jewish life. However, if the wife re-partners without a gett, the children from this new relationship could carry the stigma of mamzerut, which may prevent them from full participation in Jewish life, including exclusion from marrying a Jewish person. The consequences for a woman remaining an agunah are significant and can carry an inter-generational impact.
Since gett refusal can be extremely controlling behaviour, it is a form of family violence and ought to be entirely intolerable to our community. Jewish marriage is an institution grounded in respect, love and dignity, and these values must carry on through the Jewish divorce process.
There are several ways to address the problem of gett refusal. One approach is to provide more support and resources for people in situations of gett refusal. This could include counselling, referrals for legal assistance, and advocacy to help them navigate the Jewish legal system and advocate for their rights. Additionally, providing education and awareness about gett refusal and Jewish divorce can empower parties to take action and advocate for themselves. These are the types of services provided by Unchain My Heart (UMH) Australia. We provide education and resources to men and women experiencing gett refusal. We advocate for parties affected by gett recalcitrance and we work across the community to prevent these issues occurring.
Another approach is to reform the halachic process of divorce, to provide more rights and protections. This could include implementing agreements that address the issue of gett refusal, and establish penalties for husbands who refuse to grant a gett. Additionally, creating a court system (both within the Beth Din or in family courts) that is more responsive and is better equipped to handle cases of gett refusal, can be also an option.
Lastly, using technology can be also a potential solution, by working cooperatively with other courts or advocacy groups in different states and countries, as has never been available previously, further enhanced by UMH’s role in the International Agunah Coalition – Cheirut. UMH works cooperatively with international partners since gett refusal is a global phenomenon.
Gett refusal is not only detrimental to the individuals affected by it, but it also undermines the integrity of the Jewish family and marriage. We must take a comprehensive approach to addressing the problem, including providing support and resources for women in situations of gett refusal, addressing the halachic options, and utilising technology. Together, we can work to ensure that all Jewish men and women have the right to move on with their lives, free from the shackles of gett refusal.
Rabbanit Ellyse Borghi a lawyer and a member of the Unchain My Heart committee. She was recently honoured as one of the top Jewish Australian changemakers under 36.
International Agunah Day is on the Fast of Esther, Monday, March 6.