When Is Internet 'Get' Shaming Kosher?

In recent years, the power of social media has been harnessed to shame men who refuse to grant a “get,” or Jewish divorce, to their wives. YouTube, blogs, Facebook and an old-fashioned demonstration helped free Adina Porat last month. Porat, an Israeli woman who had been waiting for a divorce for eight years after her husband had moved on to serve as a ritual director in Dayton, Ohio.

Currently a new campaign targets Oded Guez, formerly a physics professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, who has refused to give his wife a get for the last four years. Last Friday, the rabbinic court issued an excommunication and a request from the public to share the information. Although the ruling does not mention social media, Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, published an account of the case on his Facebook page. Guez’s picture has been widely shared on blogs and Facebook and he was fired by Bar-Ilan a few days later.

According to Jewish law, a man must give a get of his own free will, without coercion. The children of women who remarry without having received a get are considered products of an adulterous marriage. These children will encounter problems as adults marrying under Jewish law or via the Israeli rabbinate. While numerous wives also refuse to accept a divorce decree, their husbands have two advantages: Children of men whose first wives have not accepted a divorce are not considered the product of adultery. Second, many Orthodox rabbis will perform a ceremony for a man who has not granted a get, but produced a document signed by 100 rabbis. Men also do not share the same concerns as women regarding their biological clock.

“Get” shaming in the public square, which today means on the Internet, makes some people uncomfortable. After all, Judaism stresses giving people the benefit of the doubt. The strong taboo against lashon hara, or evil speech, refers to negative statements even if they are true. In cases where efforts to secure a Jewish divorce have failed and many years have passed, the psychological barrier over naming names can be difficult to overcome.

Batya Kahana-Dror, head of Mavoi Satum, an organization providing aid to women trapped in Jewish marriage, refused to share the news on social media, despite having used this tactic in other cases. She lambasted the religious court for turning to the public instead of administering harsher means at its disposal, like placing the recalcitrant husband in jail. Blogger Rachel Stomel takes the same position.

But Guez’s wife blessed the actions of the religious court. Speaking to Yair Ettinger of Haaretz, the wife, referred to as G., claimed that Guez has kept the fact of their separation a secret, and still tells acquaintances that he is spending the holidays with her family. She believes that in his case, only public pressure will be effective. “If he goes to jail, he will tell everyone he went on vacation.”

In light of questions raised about the justification for social media shaming, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Orot Shaul Yeshiva and chair of the national religious rabbinic group Tzohar’s ethics committee, recently issued general guidelines on the topic. Cherlow, well-known for speaking out on a variety of controversial social issues and for his books of responsa to questions posed to his website, noted that the Internet’s power can also lead to positive change.

In a press release issued by Tzohar, Rabbi Cherlow suggests examining the following when deciding whether to name names:

  • The message must strictly adhere to the truth without any form of editorializing or taking judgmental positions (positive or negative) by the author.

  • The author of public posts must determine if there is a real public need for the information to be shared or if the intent can be achieved in a less public manner. However if there is indeed a specific halachiclly [according to Jewish law] mandated issue which can be resolved with the publication, it is not only permissible but commanded by the Torah to act.

  • Every issue must be weighed carefully, so only the necessary amount of pressure is publicly exhorted. Facts irrelevant to the case at hand — even when true — should not be included in messages because they can cause undue and unjust harm.

  • Post responsibly-The Internet is an unforgiving platform where damage imposed can be difficult, and often impossible, to erase. So think many times before posting.

Rabbi Chaim Navon, a well-known writer on religious-Zionist issues, also supports the public campaign against Guez and claims that internet shaming fulfills the rabbinic court’s intention. “Once, when communities were [true] communities, excommunication was an effective means of social exclusion,” wrote Navon on Facebook. “The weakening of these communities, along with increased mobility, mitigated the effectiveness of this tool. One who was excommunicated would thumb his nose at the rabbinic court, or move elsewhere and start again. The social networks are reviving the effectiveness of excommunication, returning it to what it was supposed to be.”

Navon stressed that public shaming is not appropriate in cases where one disagrees with someone’s viewpoint, or as a response to inappropriate remarks. According to Navon, shaming should be applied after a ruling by a rabbinical court.

But Cherlow does not refer specifically to Guez’s case, nor does he mention get refusal. It appears that to him, internet shaming could be appropriate in other situations. Cherlow does advise the public to proceed with caution, by checking the source of the information and remembering that “likes” or shares of incorrect or unnecessary information also signify endorsement.

“There is no disputing that we are in an age of communication that gives us both remarkable power to impact change via our keyboards and that can be a positive development,” Rabbi Cherlow adds. “But halacha requires that we always act responsibly and think of the impact of our actions.”

As of this writing, public pressure has not been effective. Guez’s wife remains an agunah, a trapped wife.

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