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Israeli Woman May Be Jailed for Refusing Divorce

According to this story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the rabbinate there has threatened to jail a 59-year-old woman if she continues to refuse to accept a religious divorce, known as a get, from her husband.

The news report says:

The woman, who lives in the center of the country, is refusing to accept the divorce from her husband because of an ongoing property dispute between the two. “I won’t take the get under any circumstances, even if they take me to jail,” the woman told Haaretz Monday. “I’m made of steel, you can’t break me.”

Usually the shoe is on the other foot, and we read about men refusing to grant their wives a divorce or extorting a payoff in order to do so. The power to grant a divorce, according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law, rests only in the hands of the man. But the woman must accept the divorce, as much as she must accept the marriage contract handed to her under the wedding canopy.

There are so few ways that women have any power in the halachic system. Refusing to accept a get is one of them. Still, members of both genders can be stubborn beyond reason and even nutty, and in such cases.

Some in the Orthodox rabbinate are willing to grant a heter meah rabbonim, or permission signed by 100 rabbis, which allows a man whose wife has not accepted a get to re-marry anyway. A woman cannot obtain such permission, and so in cases where her husband refuses to give her a divorce, is left an agunah, a woman chained to a dead marriage. As an agunah she cannot remarry or move on with her life. According to Haaretz, the man in this case was given such a heter in 2001. Still, the article says, the couple remains technically married, which has ramifications when it comes to taxes, inheritance and insurance in Israel.

Batia Kahana-Dror, head of the Israeli organization Mavoi Satum, which advocates on behalf of agunot, says she supports the religious court’s right to jail the recalcitrant wife. “A get should not be a blackmailing tool for a man or a woman,” she said.

Of course that’s true. But this case is another illustrating why religion and state should be disentangled in Israel on matters of personal status, as they are in the United States. If they were, a civil court judge could grant the man in this case a divorce even without the wife’s permission. And judges could also free the many women whose husbands refuse to liberate them from their status as agunot.

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