Jewish law mandates that either spouse can request a get but only the husband can grant one. This technicality in the Jewish divorce process has led to nefarious manipulations by husbands who wish to gain the upper hand in divorce settlements or permanently punish and control their wives.
Such a flagrant imbalance of power enables a get-threat shakedown. Women, some with many children, are faced with impossible demands, forced to yield homes, assets, even custody; coerced into accepting drastic reductions in spousal and child support payments; driven to rely on welfare and social services to survive. Unless women relinquish their rights, the get is often withheld. This deliberate flaying of Jewish law is clearly contrary to its designed intent.
Rabbis who should be reining these men in, enjoining them from using bullying and coercive threats of withholding the get, frequently act as active or passive agents facilitating the husbands’ outrageous demands in bet din. Even well intentioned rabbis encourage women to yield so they can obtain their freedom. The system is tragically out of balance in the diaspora – the number of agunot is on the rise and the abuse of the system by recalcitrant husbands has become common practice.
Many women receive ransom calls, usually through emissaries of the husband, the indirect intimidation stance of cowards. My husband’s rabbi, privy to details of the abuse I’d endured, had no qualms about requesting $250, 000 for the get – and that was twenty years ago. Several years ago my father-in-law said it would take $500, 000 just to coax his son to the negotiation table, and that offer was contingent on my taking out an ad in a major paper begging his forgiveness for all the horrible things I had done to him.
Yes, I got custody of our child; yes, he got supervised visitation. That’s what happens when you can’t control your rages or stick to the mandates of the court – but that’s not his fault, its mine. He remains the martyred, offended party.
A get was never intended to be used as a weapon or a bargaining chip. All custodial and monetary issues are resolvable, either through arbitration, settlement, p’sak in bet din, or court mandate.
Can you imagine being deprived, in the prime of life, of conjugal relations, intimacy, and a home life for years and years? The beauty of two people living in harmony works when a couple creates a loving, cooperative, respectful life together. However, when marriages don’t work, the family home can become acrimonious and the marriage unsustainable. The Torah made provisos for such cases. Yet many judge a woman’s choice to exit a bad marriage. They feel she should weather the worst, go for more marital therapy, stay for the sanctity of marriage and the sake of the children… What naiveté to think a marriage has to be happy!
Sometimes marriages just need to end. It’s a fact of life. Common causes are financial strife, deceit, infidelity, or couples who’ve grown universes apart, their differences irreconcilable. There are those who endure extreme physical and emotional abuse. Most are women, afraid to leave; many, in fact, stay longer than they should, their bruises not always visible to outsiders.
Children deserve a stable, nurturing, uncontentious environment, not a hostile battleground etched onto their indelible consciousness, shaping their future relationships. Some couples erroneously think that conceiving another child together will somehow mend the family. It only builds the casualty count. When a marriage is dead, there is a moral imperative to facilitate a divorce and to establish the proper separation mechanisms for the two parties.
To date, there is very little recourse for women in my position. Whatever funds we’ve managed to squirrel away are spent with astounding diminution on litigation in bet din, civil court, or both. My husband joined a cadre of recalcitrants, expert in strategic prolonged pro se litigation, advocating “father’s rights” but unable to stay the course of court-appointed forensics or adhere to court-ordered visitation schedules. My life savings went quickly down the rabbit hole during years of bet din and court procedures. Many husbands cleverly hide assets and women are stuck raising children alone, juggling job, motherhood and household with limited assistance, bereft of funds, struggling and vulnerable.