The subject is a tricky one, because on the one hand Israel aspires to be a modern, democratic society, and in the public sphere women are treated as equals, on the whole. On the other hand, though, its laws regarding marriage and divorce are subject to the restrictions, regulations, and constraints imposed on it by its ancient, patriarchal religion of Judaism.
The reasons for this are complex, but essentially Jewish religious law regarding marriage and divorce was adopted when the State of Israel was established as part of the price the ‘founding fathers’ paid in order to bring the religious parties into the coalition government, and in that it could be considered to have been a success. Back then, however, the religious parties were very different in their mien and outlook from the ultra-orthodox version that has come to be included in recent coalition governments.
Thus, the laws set out in the Bible regarding the role of women in marriage are upheld to this day. If her husband dies without having had any children (sons, that is), his brothers must either marry her or release her. Yes, still in modern-day Israel! There is no such thing as civil marriage in Israel. Members of each religious group – Jews, Moslems, Christians – may marry only according to their religion. That was the arrangement during the more than four hundred years of Ottoman rule throughout the Middle East, and is still in effect.
If a Jewish woman wishes to get divorced she can do so only if her husband agrees to grant her one. This harks back to the time when the wife was regarded as the property of her husband, and this approach continues to cast its long shadow over the situation of women in Israel today. It has given rise to many injustices towards women over the centuries, and it is not unknown for a man to deny his wife a divorce unless she gives him some material benefit, or grants him custody of their children, or whatever whim takes his fancy. The rabbinical courts which judge these cases consist entirely of men, so that the tendency is often in their favour. Divorce can’t be pleasant at the best of times, but I don’t envy any woman in Israel who wants to obtain a divorce. The process involved is a long-drawn-out, demeaning, and painful Via Dolorosa, and often ends in failure.
Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by Susan Weiss entitled ‘How a Good Jewish Girl Became a Radical Feminist.’ Susan is an American-born attorney now living in Israel. When she immigrated to Israel some thirty years ago, she was an orthodox Jewish woman with a husband and three small children. Unable to work in her profession, she volunteered for various women’s organizations, where she encountered the problem of women denied a divorce by their husband (‘Agunot’). Using her legal training, Susan was able to help in some of these cases, and simultaneously found herself moving gradually away from her strict adherence to orthodox Judaism. Fortunately, her husband has been very understanding about this process.
There are many other archaic aspects of Jewish law that restrict women’s rights, but they are too numerous and too arcane to mention here, to the extent that a person born into the modern world will find it difficult to believe that in Israel they are still the law, and are enforced by the agencies of the State.
In 2004 Susan founded the Center for Women’s Justice in Israel, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of women in Israel to equality, dignity, and justice in Jewish Law. The organization has achieved a great deal in upholding women’s rights in the rabbinical courts, and has even instituted proceedings in the civil court for damages against recalcitrant husbands. These cases have been upheld by the courts, resulting in positive outcomes and setting an important legal precedent in Israel.
Written together with journalist Netty Gross-Horowitz, Susan’s book, ‘Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War,’ has been published by the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion, and Law. The volume describes cases dealt with by the CWJ in which women were refused a divorce by their husband or upon whom various restrictions were imposed by the rabbinical court. Incidentally, even a woman who has been married abroad in a civil ceremony abroad (which is recognized in Israel) must seek a divorce in the rabbinical court.
However, the ultimate solution to the situation, according to Susan, must be the separation of religion and state in Israel, bringing the country into line with the tenets of a modern democracy, enabling couples to wed according to their own inclinations, and releasing the stranglehold of the rabbinical courts on legal procedures in Israel.
Roll on the day!