By Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan
Jewish women must receive a “get” (or Jewish divorce) from their husbands before a marriage is considered terminated. Women without this document do not have the right to remarry within our faith. While most Jewish men are willing to grant a get, some withhold it as a means to exact revenge or as leverage related to alimony, visitation rights or domestic abuse charges.
Many of us know women who have been affected by this kind of exploitation. I have heard agonizing stories about the hardships faced by these agunot or “chained women.” Women can spend years in an abusive relationship before finally escaping with her children. Although she could be granted a divorce by the state, her husband in a final act of manipulation, could refuse to grant her a get unless she dropped domestic violence charges.
A longtime friend of mine confided that her ex-husband withheld a get until her affluent family gave him a significant sum of money. These are just two examples of heart-breaking scenarios related to this issue.
The New York Times wrote that get abuse has become “a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled.”
Many have crafted a non-legislative approach to address this problem. Jewish Women International (JWI), for example, launched “From Boy to Mentsch” and “Get Smart” to educate teens about the importance of treating one’s partner with respect and the wisdom of halachic prenuptial agreements. Advocacy groups like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) organize protests to shame men into giving a get.
Ours is a nation of religious freedom and tolerance. But when a religious rule is weaponized so that one person can intimidate or injure another, the government has an obligation to intervene. It’s time for Maryland to offer legislative protection to those whose civil rights and religious freedom are being threatened.
As a Jewish woman in the year 2020, I am dismayed that this manipulative and outdated practice of withholding a get endures in our community. I realize that as a state senator, it is not my job to change the rules of Judaism. It is, however, my responsibility to protect those in need.
We’ve come close to passing legislation that would protect women from get withholding before in Maryland. In 2007, Del. Sandy Rosenberg introduced HB 324. It was approved in the Senate committee but was narrowly defeated by a 22-22 tie vote on the floor.
Over the past several months, I’ve met with Jewish leaders, women’s rights advocates and other legislators in the hopes that 2020 is the year Maryland will finally help these agunot. A narrow legislative solution would restrict a husband’s ability to control and manipulate his wife.
My bill would allow either party filing for divorce to request an affidavit stating that religious barriers to remarriage have been removed. This sworn statement must be filed before the court can grant a divorce decree.
While educational programs prevent some get abuse, and protests have helped some women break their chains, many women in Maryland and across the country are still suffering. With the increased awareness of #MeToo and sexual harassment, it seems almost inconceivable that Maryland women are forced to endure such an archaic practice.
Maryland Del. Dalya Attar (D-District 41) and I are sponsoring reasonable legislation that will address some of the worst abuses of the get. We are collaborating with dozens of rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC), the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA), the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) and many others. I urge Marylanders to join me in supporting this legislation.
State Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat, represents Rockville and Gaithersburg in the Maryland General Assembly. She is a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac and has served on the regional board of the American Jewish Committee for more than 20 years.
My concern about the proposed legislation is that it would corrode the separation of church and state. It seems that some people are vigilant about such separation when it suits their interests, but when it comes to Constitutional protections, you either support separation of church and state or you don’t. Under current law, the existence of a get is irrelevant to meeting the requirements for a divorce under state law. If a spouse won’t agree to a get, there is nothing to stop the divorcing spouse from obtaining a civil divorce. Expect Constitutional challenges – the proposed statute would use the granting of a civil divorce, a state action, to strong-arm an opposing party into agreeing to a certain disposition under religious law. There is the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Those supporting the proposed legislation should not whine about erosion of separation of church and state.
Ms. Kagan, I applaud your desire to help agunot. Especially in cases of domestic abuse, being a chained woman is just one more way for abuse to continue long after the civil bond has legally ended.
Having been through divorce in Maryland, I’m not at all clear on how your proposed legislation is going to mesh with the court system. The courts do not care how–or whether–we pray. They have zero control and influence over a piece of paper that gets drafted by a sofer that is supposed to be initiated by the husband’s own free will. You’re asking the state to get involved in religious matters. Moreover, you’re seeking to have this affidavit filed before a civil divorce can be granted. Who is supposed to be signing this affidavit? Who is supposed to grant it? What makes you think that the Jewish community is going to accept it, when they already don’t accept the civil divorce decree as “good enough” for a Jewish woman to remarry within the faith later on?
I understand 100% your intent is for good, but I fear this, if approved, puts us on a slippery slope. We already have some businesses claiming “it’s against my religion” as a reason to not cover health items such as birth control pills for employees, even though there are several women who take the pill for reasons other than for birth control. You’re saying that the state should intervene with the get process. Who’s to say that, in the future, there can be a law that if the state doesn’t like how a religion is operating, it can use legal force to actually ban the religion? That might sound a bit extreme, but given the state of affairs today, it’s not so hard to imagine–for Judaism or any other religion that is not mainstream or evangelical Christian.
And this comes from someone who doesn’t yet have her get. (Supposedly, it will be granted to me–if I pay for it in full. I don’t exactly have $500 in spare change for a fancy piece of paper that gets signed and locked up in some keeper’s filing system as proof that I am free and clear of the bonds of marriage because someone who speaks Hebrew better than I do says so.) I personally think the archaic, patriarchal rules for a get need to be amended within Judaism itself.
Sen Kagan, some women, such as my ex-wife, divorced me for almost no reason. She cheated on me and abused me while we were married. She claims to be religious and wants a Get. I didn’t want the civil divorce. So I’m not giving her a Get. I hope your bill will exclude these types of women from coverage. In cases where one spouse abandons the marriage or is derelict, your bill requiring the parties to cooperate in the Get divorce process makes sense. But in cases where one party abused the other party; then demands the victim to participate in the Get process, I hope you agree would be outrageous.
The ONLY reason a woman needs a Get is because she was married with what is called “Kiddushin”. Some authorities hold that even if there were no formal Kiddushin, that the woman can still require a Get under some circumstances if the marriage ends.
The solution is clear, as taught by Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn: stop making Kiddushin weddings.
A Jewish man and woman sho want to marry should make a Pilegesh (concubine) wedding, and explicitly state they are living together for the sake of Z’nus, that is, in. a non-Kiddushin marriage.
Now, the woman can end the marriage simply by leaving the husband — no Get required. And moreover, no special civil legislation will ever be used to pressure a husband to give what will be an invalid Get and which could lead to the birth of Mamzerim by the “ex-wife”.