Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dating, Marriage, Divorce, and the Agunah

Scene from the movie, Gett  (Jew in the City)
It seems that Israeli Chief Rabbinate is hated (or at the very least, considered irrelevant) by virtually every segment of Jewry in Israel. Secular Jews because they see them as forcing religion down their throats. Dati Leumi (or Religious Zionist) Jews because they see the Rabbinate under control of Charedi Rabbininc leadership. And Charedim because the rabbinate is part of a Zionist government which is anathema to them.

All this is really too bad. If you are going to have a Jewish state, you are going to need rabbis to determine what is and isn’t Jewish. And they ought to have the power to enforce all matters religious. Such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. It’s therefore sad to see political and religious agendas undermining what I see as a necessary component of a Jewish state. A component that was agreed upon by the founders of the State and most of its religious leaders at the time.

But this is all a side issue. I mention it to contrast it with the reality of the Chief Rabbinate. Which in the case of the Agunah is exactly the opposite of what many of its detractors believe it to be.  As commonly defined, an Agunah is a woman that seeks a divorce (Gett) but whose husband refuses to give her one.  Contrary to the conventional wisdom (as reflected in the movie ‘Gett’) the opposite seems to be the case. Sender Haber, a rabbi who has dealt with many cases of Agunah, said the following in a Jew in the City article: 
As opposed to what the film would like you to think, women regularly file for divorce and plead their cases before Rabbinic courts. In addition, there are male and female “Rabbinic Advocates” (some of whom are secular Jews) who stand ready to represent their clients in a professional, effective, and empathetic manner…
Are there women out there waiting for their Jewish divorce? Yes, and it is heartbreaking and tragic…

The fact is that the Rabbinate in Israel has made some of the greatest strides in Jewish history to eradicate the Agunah issue. One in five women experience some form of extortion over their get, according to Mavoi Satum, but the Rabbinate is dealing with it…
A husband who refuses to grant a get has no chance of ever getting married by a competent rabbi. That is not always sufficient incentive, so the Rabbinate in Israel has developed a powerful arsenal: The Rabbinic Courts have the ability to freeze bank accounts, revoke driver’s licenses, seize property, and incarcerate husbands who refuse to grant a get. They can order solitary confinement or send a husband to a prison where they will not receive religious privileges granted to other prisoners. They can hire private investigators to track down recalcitrant husbands. They have even found ways to compel husbands who have fled the country to return and grant a get… 
So much for castigating the Israeli Rabbinate. Not everything is as black and white about them as many people seem to think it. Especially those with their own agendas - whether religious or political.

While it is nice to see improvement in this area, it brings to mind the troubling increase of divorce in our time. When I was growing up and well into the 80s, divorce used to be so rare, that one hardly ever heard of it. At least among Orthodox Jews. If someone was divorced, they tended hide it if they could.  The fact that there are so many cases of Agunos today underscores the fact that things have drastically changed. I know dozens of people in my own community here in Chicago that have gotten divorced. The question is, why? What is different today that was not the case yesterday?

One answer is that divorce in general society is so common and so accepted that it is almost celebrated. And this attitude has trickled down to us. There is little if any shame these days in getting divorced. So that issues between husband and wife that in the past that might have been worked through, are now enough to consider divorce as an option.

It is true that today’s attitudes about divorce has a positive side. Couples in truly bad marriages no longer have to suffer through them because of the embarrassment. But the fact is that a lot of marriages that can be saved, aren’t. If a marriage can be saved with a little work and compromise and yet divorce is the option taken, that is a tragedy. Especially when there are young children. I don’t think people that take this option so easily are aware of the psychological damage a divorce does to their children. In my view they aren’t even fully aware of the difficulties they will encounter themselves as divorcees.

As accepted as divorce is today, divorcees are often not fully accepted by the vast majority of people whose lives are geared to intact families. Even as many good and decent people try their best to include them. A whole new class of singles is created that are not quite compatible in a world where being married with children is the norm.

No discussion of divorce would be complete without a discussion of the so called Shidduch crisis. Which I think is a contributing factor to divorce.  The fact that there are so many young people that are having a difficult time getting married for a variety of reasons; and the fact that there are so many women as young as 25 that are seen as over-the-hill; makes many people jump into marriages with people they with whom they are not compatible at all.

Either problems are overlooked, or felt that they can somehow be dealt with when in reality they can’t. Or there just isn’t enough time during the dating process to discover problems that would have ended the relationship.  Divorce in these cases often ensue after just a few weeks of marriage. (Or even less in some cases. I know of at least 2 couples that filed for divorce right after the week of Sheva Brachos!) And in some cases like this Agunos are created.

For those that do manage to get a divorce, the Shidduch crisis is even more difficult as they now have baggage that their never married counterparts don’t have. All while competing for the same thing.

It seems to me that we ought to take stock of where our community stands right now on issues dating, marriage and divorce. We need to be just as concerned about the way we date and get married as we are about the Agunah crisis. Because if we get the dating and marriage part right, there will be a lot fewer Agunos in the world.