Thursday, December 11, 2014

GETT, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

The Golden Globes have announced their list of foreign film nominees. One film they chose is by Israeli filmmakers Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz. It tells the tale of Vivianne Amsalem a woman seeking to divorce her husband in Israel. Marriage and divorce for Jewish citizens in Israel are governed by Orthodox Jewish law. Under Jewish law only a man can divorce his wife. A woman has no say. When a man refuses to grant his wife a divorce (a GETT) she becomes an "agunah," or a chained woman. She can not remarry, she cannot have children with another man for fear that they will be considered mamzarim, or bastards, and be forced to live their lives on the fringes of Jewish society. Meanwhile, a man without a GETT can take a common law wife and their children will have no stigma attached.

It is important to remember that when these laws were written governing divorce and marriage in the Biblical Jewish world, they were leaps and bounds above anything that was practiced by their neighbors. In fact it continued that way until our modern era. The problem is that now in our 21st century world we have come to see that women and men are equals and entitled to run their lives as they see fit. Women are no longer chattel, the property of their husbands. So the entire idea of sublimating your right to freedom, we find anathema to who we are as modern civilized people. But for some they have no choice in the matter and it is part and parcel of their existence.

This movie details what happens to one such agunah and how the courts allow her to be abused by her husband. It is an indictment of the Israeli divorce courts. Activists hope that it will lead to a revamping of the divorce courts and may lead the way for civil marriage and divorce in Israel.

It is important to note that Orthodox, Conservative and even some Reform Jews around the world follow the rules associated with the GETT. In fact the situation with agunahs had become so problematic here in the US that New York State passed a law requiring a Jewish husband who has been divorced in a civil court from his wife to give her a GETT, or risk fines and imprisonment.

One of the more prominent agunah issues here in the USA is the Friedman case where a rabbinical court has even held the husband in contempt for not granting his wife a GETT. It came to prominence because of the public admonishment against the husband, an aide to whose a Michigan congressman. Something that had not been done before and was considered controversial at the time. Personally, I had a girlfriend whose exhusband would not give her a GETT unless the family paid him a ransom (which they did). This too is a very popular ploy. Recently four New Jersey rabbis have been sent to prison for kidnapping and beating recalcitrant husbands who refused to grant their wives a GETT.

It does seem foolish that here in the US any woman wouldn't just move on and live her life, as there is nothing here stopping her. But for those who wish to remain religious and continue living within their communities it is an essential part of existence.  Personally I don't understand it. But that is just my perspective. Perhaps the rest of their Orthodox life has alot of meaning for them and its only this piece that they find problematic.

Perhaps in today's world the rabbis who interpret Jewish law may want to take a look at what has come before and revamp it so that it is respectful to and understanding of the humanity of women. It is better than public shaming, kidnapping and blackmail, for certain.

Meanwhile, for those who are religious who would like some support go to Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.



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