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December 19, 2014 / 27 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Levmore’

Unchaining The Agunah Problem

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

In producing “Women Unchained,” a daring yet dignified film about women who can’t get a get – a Jewish divorce – filmmakers Beverly Siegel and Leta Lenik have done Jewish society a favor. By tackling the agunah problem with deep understanding of this complex issue, these two women have made it possible for rabbis and laypersons, ordinarily pitted against each other on this issue, to really hear the other side.

First, some definitions. A Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get is called an agunah, from the Hebrew word that means anchored. According to traditional Jewish law, which serves as the basis of jurisprudence on matters of personal status for all Jews in Israel, an agunah is not free to remarry and build a new life, even if she is civilly divorced, until she receives a get from her husband.

Moreover, for the get to be considered kosher, it must be given by the man of his own free will; it cannot ordinarily be forced. It is his decision, not the rabbis’ decision.

If an agunah flouts this restriction and marries civilly without a get and gives birth to a child, the child of that forbidden union may be stigmatized as a mamzer and, as such, be barred from marrying freely in a traditional Jewish ceremony anywhere in the world. No comparable penalty strikes a child fathered by a divorced or separated man who has not given his wife a get. This is the core of the problem. And this is the reason why some men hold out for – and get – astronomical sums of money to “buy” their free will.

“Women Unchained” tells the stories of five Orthodox women who are victims of their husband’s refusal to give them a get. Without resorting to hyperbole or hysterics, the filmmakers involve the viewer in the constrained rhythm of the women’s daily lives.

One works in the cafeteria of a Jewish day school to support her daughters, while waiting 10 years for her husband to release her. Another sits home alone at the computer shut out from joining a Jewish dating website because women who are divorced must have a get to be accepted. Another, a former victim of domestic violence whose father paid dearly to buy her get, tends her garden and tartly observes, “Each weed is a recalcitrant husband. Yank.”

Exposing the impact of get abuse on family members, the teenage daughter of one of the agunot asks why she should marry a Jewish man, if it might land her in the same situation as her mother. “I know I’m Jewish,” she says in a poignant scene, “but maybe I should just have a live-in boyfriend, so at least I’ll be able to be free.”

As personal sagas develop, narrator Mayim Bialik (a Ph.D. in neuroscience, though she’s better known for her roles in the television sitcoms “Blossom” and “The Big Bang Theory”) elegantly and with insight carries viewers on a journey that doesn’t flinch from describing the phenomena of domestic violence; get abuse; the traditional Jewish ban on reporting another Jew to secular authorities; Orthodox rabbinic inertia; hit men; and, in accounting-ledger detail, the “getonomics” that pinched the father of one agunah for $500,000 to buy his daughter’s freedom.

Historical background is engagingly conveyed while interviews with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski; Rabbi Gedalya Schwartz of the CRC; Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes; Project Eden founder Henna White; family law expert Alexandra Leichter; author/therapist M. Gary Neuman, and leading agunah-rights advocates (this author included), help to crystallize the important issues.

Lest one think non-Orthodox Jews are immune to these problems, the impact of the get issue on non-Orthodox Jews is deftly explained by Rabbi Seth Farber, who notes that if new olim want “to open a marriage file in Israel, they will have to provide certification from a recognized Orthodox rabbi.” A woman who’s been divorced will have to produce a get and in the case of the daughter of a woman who’s been divorced, “the rabbinate will insist on seeing an Orthodox get from the mother before they allow the daughter to open a marriage file.”

From the U.S. to Israel to Peru, unexpected twists and turns – some filmed in real time – bring the viewer to outrage as well as laughter out of disbelief. Nevertheless, this film does not leave us empty-handed or helpless. A clear statement is made to all marrying couples and their parents: A good Jewish marriage is one where the couple signs a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal. It works.

There is nothing easy about dealing with the agunah problem. It’s extremely uncomfortable to talk about; it’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated; following the Jewish law that leads to the problem is confusing if one is not a Talmudic scholar; it’s especially incomprehensible to those who were born with the silver spoon of civil rights built in to their lives.

Standing Idly By

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Presumably, almost all the readers of this publication are Orthodox Jews – those that pride themselves on serving G-d through fulfilling His commandments. Keeping in mind the rabbinical edict, “A mitzvah that comes your way—don’t miss it!” (Rashi, Bavli Megillah 6b), it would behoove the readers to know that an oft-missed mitzvah has come their way.

The Torah warns us twelve times to have special consideration towards the orphan and the widow – yatom v’almanah. The first such commandment appears in Shemot 22,21: “Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict.” It is followed directly by a description of the consequences to society in its entirety if there is affliction. It is frightening to print in a newspaper column; readers will have to refer to the original.

Rashi clarifies that in essence we are warned not to cause suffering to any individual: “This is the law for all people, here the text spoke in accordance with present reality, for they [widows and orphans] are weak of strength and it is common to find them afflicted.” Or as the Soncino Edition (J.H. Hertz, 1962) commentary states: “Who are bereft of their human protector and destitute of the physical force to defend their rights.” Ibn Ezra adds: “For all who sees one who afflicts an orphan or widow and does not come to their aid, he is also considered to be an afflictor.” Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch enlightens us further: “The widow has lost her mouth in her husband, has nobody to speak for her any longer. The orphan…[suffers from the] misuse his weakness and lack of protection…even rich widows and orphans are easier to be taken advantage of and misused, than other people… in society, amongst people…they are bereft of anybody to stand up for them, to protect them, guide and advise them, and so are exposed to be wronged and humiliated. Hence, in their case the Torah addresses primarily the members of the community in the plural ‘thou shalt not misuse their weakness or make them feel the weakness of their position.’”

Rashi related the mitzvah to reality. The reality today is that there is another individual who has lost her support, has suffered the abuse of her rights and who has no man to serve as her pillar of support. That is the modern-day agunah—the victim of Get-refusal. In fact, the very man upon whom the agunah originally depended to honor her and act as her protector turns against her and abuses his power over her.

There is one agunah today in the United States who is both orphaned of her father and whose husband is refusing (as of the time of this printing) to give her a get. This is Tamar Epstein. Lest one think that this is a problem solely for the rabbis and not for the layperson — the rabbis have already done their utmost to convince Mr. Aharon Friedman to give Ms. Epstein a get, to no avail. In fact not only did the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada issue an Declaration of Contempt (ktav seiruv – see page F1 in this week’s newspaper) against Mr. Friedman, the rabbinic judges included a plea directed to all: “Any person who has the ability or opportunity to influence him to free Tamar Epstein from the chains of her agunah status is obligated to do so and doing so will indeed be the fulfillment of a great mitzvah.”

Each and every reader of these words is now aware of a biblical commandment (mitzvah d’oraita) and a rabbinic-ordained commandment (mitzvah d’rabbanan) to help Tamar Epstein achieve her get. Moreover, most readers recite every Tuesday at the close of the morning prayers (shacharit): “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy…” Someone has to help Tamar Epstein find relief from the affliction she is suffering. Will you heed the words you yourself recite in prayer? Will you take the mitzvah of helping Tamar to heart? How can you help deliver the get to her hand? It is incumbent upon each and every one in the Orthodox community to consider how he or she can help. It is not easy for readers sitting in the comfort of their own home to actually take action. For that reason an additional commandment was necessary to spell out that one may not stand by when a fellow Jew is in a position of need. It is human nature to need that extra push in order to have the will to help.  Now that you know, you cannot stand idly by.

Editor’s Note:  A protest rally against Mr. Aharon Friedman’s recalcitrance has been organized by ORA and will be held on Sunday, December 4th, 1 PM at 1131 University Blvd., Silver Spring, Md.

Rachel Levmore, Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; and author of “Min’ee Einayich Medim’a” on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.

 

Rachel Levmore And How To Be A Pioneer In Get-Getting

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

        Rachel Levmore is not a doctor. She is, in fact, a lawyer – of Halachah. This does not stop her from comparing what she does to doctors who develop vaccines. Except Levmore’s vaccines are to prevent get refusal, not smallpox. And she, with the Council of Young Israel Rabbis, a 17-year-old Israeli organization supported by the Jewish Agency, inoculates the population by advocating couples to sign prenuptial agreements before they wed.

 

         Levmore serves as a toenet, a rabbinical court advocate in Israel, where she was one of the first women to be licensed in 1995. Since a toen is a fully licensed profession, Levmore and anyone else who wishes to serve is required to pass a thorough test on court proceedings and Halachah. One of Levmore’s innovations has been writing, together with two rabbis, the Agreement for Mutual Respect – the Israeli form of the prenup signed in the U.S.

 

         She is a pioneer and an improbable warrior. Levmore recently came to the United States – a visit that included speaking engagements at Drisha, Stern College and JOFA – to convince Americans to inoculate our population, too. It’s simple, really. Levmore wants you to sign a document that requires a husband, upon dissolution of a marriage, to pay an agreed amount (about $50 a day) after a waiting period until the get is given to the wife.

 

         Hopefully, there will be no get, no divorce. If there is one, hopefully, it will be mutually agreed upon and promptly given. Unfortunately, divorces do occur. Instead of waiting for a problem, however, Levmore argues that signing a prenuptial is actually an expression of love. “I love you so much,” the act of signing says, according to Levmore, “that I want to protect you against anything that may happen – I even want to protect you against myself.”

 

         Those who are skeptical about signing a contract about the end of a marriage that has not yet begun, Levmore notes, should look at the ketubah, the marriage contract the Jewish people have used for the last 2,000 years. It too is a document to protect the woman, albeit under different circumstances.

 

         Until the ketubah was instituted in the times of the Mishnah, a husband could throw his wife out of the house without providing means to support her. Because it was nearly impossible for a woman to support herself, the husband was (and still is) required to provide her with 200 zuz, or the equivalent of one year of work.

 

         Looking at the ketubah also puts the modern-day prenuptial in perspective. Among the decrees of Rabbenu Gershom, the renowned Talmudist, is a prohibition against polygamy as well as against divorcing a woman against her will. (Rabbenu Gershom also decreed a heter meah rabbanim in order to override his own decree in cases of dire circumstances.) These decrees were instituted in order to protect women against the problems of the day in about the year 1,000 CE – that of a husband traveling abroad and simply abandoning his wife for another.

 

         Looking at Halachah in this historical perspective, Levmore points out, allows us to see the prenuptial agreement simply as a natural extension of the desire to protect women. Today, 1,000 years later, there is a new problem in the Jewish community of get refusal. Today’s tragedy is of women whose husbands refuse to give them gets. Some demand exorbitant sums of money, and some simply refuse out of spite. A prenup, therefore, makes it financially unappealing to refuse a get by requiring the husband to pay for his folly.

 

         The batei din in America are easy to defend and even easier to attack. People either seem to support the rabbanim no matter what, or else attack the entire institution as being corrupt and misogynistic. Rachel Levmore does neither. Instead, she describes the need for a “meeting of Halachah and what has been fed to us in our mother’s milk -individuality.”

 

         In other words, Levmore wants to improve the system from within. And we are lucky enough to be included in this monumental, historical move to protect our people. All we have to do is sign.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/rachel-levmore-and-how-to-be-a-pioneer-in-get-getting/2007/02/28/

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