The Nasty Underground Of Jewish Divorce

The following is part of the Hevria series “Truth And Dare”, in which Hevria writers have pushed themselves to write about topics they find uncomfortable to share publicly.

In Melbourne, Australia, there’s a woman who’s trying to get a divorce from her husband. The husband isn’t refusing, not exactly — but, well, he still isn’t giving her a divorce. At least, not yet. According to the wife, he refused to finalize the get until she signed away any right to make a claim against him in civil court. He’s part of a huge family that has a strong presence in the Orthodox Jewish community. Her family does not. The Melbourne Beis Din, the rabbis arbitrating the whole thing, should be impartial, right? Wrong: The husband also forced his wife’s father to make out a check for $10,000, made payable to him — just in case she violates any of the terms of the agreement.

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a rabbi’s wife had terminal cancer. Her husband was allegedly abusing her. The rabbi and the wife went to the Beis Din. He drew out the trial, longer and longer. Each meeting with the divorce court showed little progress. He’s a popular rabbi with a large local following. Some people said she was lying about the abuse. Others were afraid to protest — it could jeopardize the divorce proceedings, they said. In the end, it didn’t matter. She died, still struggling to divorce him, still unable to.

A get is a Jewish writ of divorce. In the old days, marrying a woman was basically akin to taking care of her and protecting her from, I don’t know, desert bandits and wild boars. The right to divorce used to be an obligation to divorce. Being married meant that you were protected — he gave you shelter; he gave you money. The get was a way to guarantee that, even after a divorce, a wife still had some money to survive.

These days, most divorces are different. Some women who are seeking a divorce aren’t looking to be provided for — they’re looking for protection from their husbands.

In the old days, Jewish communities really looked out for women seeking a get. We were superheroes! We were Robin Hoods! If a guy was treating his wife wrong, squads of well-meaning rabbinical thugs were dispatched: a bunch of young, healthy yeshiva bochurs would show up, possibly with a baseball bat or something, and offer a little healthy encouragement. This tradition continued well into modern times, and was even referenced in an episode of The Sopranos.

I’m not saying that goon squads are the best way to deal with a husband who won’t issue a get, or even that it’s the right way. I just think it illustrates — sadly — where the Jewish community’s heart used to be, and where it is now. Rather than helping the underdogs, and using Jewish law as a way to help them, the get has become a way to keep the powerless people powerless. There are rabbis who are helping out their friends, their supporters, the people who give them money. And the people with money are silencing anyone who questions them.

And if anyone tries to help those underdogs, or even to speak out and say there’s a problem, we threaten them.

***

Late last night, one of my wife’s friends got an anonymous call. And it was about her. “Tell Itta to leave [the rabbi] out of the limelight,” a man’s gravelly voice said, then hung up. A few days before that, the president of a local synagogue IM’d her — she’d never given him her messenger account — to tell her not to go forward with her plans and to warn her that there’d be consequences.

You might think my wife was been moving narcotics across state lines, or stealing candy from the local synagogue candy man’s tallis bag, or maybe kicking puppies. She isn’t. She’s just planning a march in support of women whose husbands won’t give them a get.

Theoretically, it’s the kind of thing that should be supported all across Crown Heights.

Except people are afraid.

The march is targeting, by name, the rabbi I mentioned at the beginning — the rabbi whose wife had terminal cancer. A lot of Chabad families, in Crown Heights and elsewhere, want to speak out against him. But many of them won’t. “When it comes to money, people can’t think properly,” said someone who comes from a family of shluchim. “People shy away from denouncing the  rabbi because his backers also financially supports many shluchim.”

It’s scary to talk about divorce, and it hits a lot of us close to the heart. Marriage is all about trusting another person with your life. You’re best friends, coworkers, and the only person who sees you naked. Divorce is the unexpected shattering of that friendship.

The heart of Jewish law — the heart of everything we do and everything we believe in — is that we try to live by G-d’s word, to be good to each other. “Anything you don’t want other people to do to you,” said Hillel Hazekein, when someone asked him to summarize the entire Torah, “don’t do to other people.”

This march isn’t about shaming anyone. It’s about justice, and it’s about trying to get malignant husbands to have compassion for the suffering people around them. “As many people as there are sending me not-nice emails,” said my wife, “there’s also a ton of people who are sending me supportive messages and thanking me for doing this. And as long as I’m helping one person, I can take the rest of it.”

This Sunday, there’s going to be a march starting at 770. If you live in Crown Heights or can travel there, please come.