The 'chained women' whose husbands refuse them a divorce

Hundreds of Jewish women stare down at a rabbi in a school hall. The Victorian chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia has called a meeting tonight to discuss agunot, "chained women". These are the women whose husbands refuse to hand over a religious divorce certificate, a gett. Without a gett, the woman are forbidden to remarry under Jewish law.

"You have the absolute responsibility to answer her question now!" one woman screams at the rabbi. An excited "oooh" rolls through the crowd. The question the woman wants answered: Why won't rabbis change the laws around divorce?

These women cry they can't remarry without a gett. But they can. An agunah (singular for agunot) can remarry any man she wants under Australian law. So why do Australian Jewish women, many secular, feel chained by this one ancient law?

Agunot are hiding in plain sight. I'm surprised to learn that the mother of George Weinberg, a friend from my Jewish high school, has been one for 37 years.

"What led up to you marrying what's-his-face?" I ask Rosemary Weinberg, at George's kitchen table, in Caulfield, Melbourne.

"Morris," George says.

"I fell in love with him," Rosemary, 73, explains. "And I was a very shy person, and he was full of life and that's the type of person I was looking for to bring me out of my shyness." They married in 1970 and she left him seven years later.

Morris was a very secular Jew. He didn't personally care about any of the religious laws. He knew Rosemary did, though. "He just said to me, 'I know you'll only marry a Jewish person and I don't want you to get married again.' "

Rosemary looked for support. "I asked one of the synagogue secretaries to help me, a big synagogue here in Melbourne. The guy said to me, "If you give me $5000, I'll try to get you a gett."

"What do you reckon he meant by that?" I ask. "Like, threaten Morris or something?"

This isn't as mad as it sounds. A renegade rabbi is presently on trial in the United States, accused of plotting to abduct and torture Jewish men who refused to grant their wives a gett.

Rosemary doesn't think it was this. She suspects at least part of the $5000 would have gone to paying off Morris. It was a moot point. Rosemary, a single mother with two children to support, didn't have the money. Would she have remarried if Morris had granted a gett?

"Maybe," Rosemary, says. "I wasn't like today, I was young. I was in my early 30s, I was tall, I was nice, I had hair, I had teeth."

After she separated from Morris, she refused to date again. "I knew I didn't have the gett, and I wasn't a person to just play around, you know? If I would have gone with someone, it would have been to get serious, and get married, and I couldn't."

"Wow, so he really ..."

"Ruined my life? Yeah."

What would God have done had she remarried under civil law?

"I don't think God would do anything," Rosemary admits. "But I would feel very bad in myself. We were brought up fairly religious and I keep everything as best I can."

George, at the kitchen sink, pipes up: "What would happen if tomorrow you went to the supermarket and, across the prune aisle, you saw a man who you connected eyes with, and then you fell in love, whirlwind?"

"Well, I would maybe try again to get a gett," Rosemary says. "Morris might have mellowed a bit in his age, and maybe he would give it."

Morris Weinberg, bald, thick glasses, British accent, lives on the Central Coast of NSW. He's an artist, and drawings of Michael Jackson and Diff'rent Strokes actor Gary Coleman hang on his walls.

"When I got divorced from Rosemary, she had done the wrong thing on me," he complains.

I tell him Rosemary, even after 37 years, pines for a gett. For closure.

"She wants a gett?" Morris says. "Let her phone me up."

"Oh, really? What happens if she phones you up and asks you for the gett?"

"I won't give her one."

"You're not religious, what do you care if you sign a gett or not?"

"What's she want a gett for? Who's going to marry her?" he says meanly.

I tell him he sounds like a textbook case of a certain type of man, outlined at the agunah meeting a few nights earlier. One who withholds a gett to maintain power.

"It doesn't give me no power."

"It must be giving you something, that you want to -"

"No," he interrupts. "It's because what she done to me."

"That's like revenge," I say.

"Why should I make her feel better than me?"

"Isn't that revenge?"

"You can put it what you like," he says.

Rabbi Avrohom Jacks is the black-bearded rabbi under siege at the agunah meeting. He is an associate judge at the Melbourne beth din, the rabbinical court that oversees divorces and conversions.

At his dining table, I pitch an explanation for the law: an obstacle so that couples think again before deciding to split. Rabbi Jacks shakes his head. We need not seek a rational reason.

"If my three-year-old wants to play with a shiny knife," the rabbi says, "when I take the knife away from her, she thinks I'm a monster. Basically I have to tell her, 'Look, you're only three years old. Your maturity and understanding is far inferior to my adult understanding.' We look at God's rules in the same way."

He says God told Moses the gett law around 3000 years ago. The consequence of betraying God carries on through the generations. "This is the most tragic thing," Rabbi Jacks says solemnly. If a woman without a gett has a child with another man, that child is branded a mamzer.

"Is that a bastard or something?" I ask.

"Yeah," Rabbi Jacks concedes. This cruel label has real-world repercussions. A mamzer is prohibited from marrying anyone, except another mamzer. "It's a stigma that's passed on forever," the rabbi declares.

The Melbourne beth din oversees about two getts a week. It works like this: a couple comes in. A scribe hand writes the gett. The couple stands, facing one another. The man holds up the folded gett, releases it, and the woman catches it between her fingers. They are now no longer married.

The rabbi tells me something not mentioned at the agunah meeting. The woman can hold the man hostage by refusing to accept the gett. In fact, he says this happens more often than the man refusing to grant a gett. However, in his experience, the two situations are different. The woman usually refuses to participate until the man agrees to practical things such as child support. The man commonly withholds a gett without wanting anything material.

"It's an extension of psychological and emotional abuse that he perpetrated within the marriage," Rabbi Jacks says. "Wielding power for its own sake."

Why don't the rabbis change the law, as the women at the agunah meeting demanded?

"They are asking us to go to God and to tell God that He made a mistake! We can't change the religion. That's not an option."

Is there a similar pathology behind unco-operative husbands and the rabbis of the beth din? Do both want to wield power over women? Particularly at the moment both feel their power is slipping away? Rabbi Jacks insists this is not the case.

One workaround, the rabbi says, is public shaming. A synagogue can shun a recalcitrant husband. "People are discouraged from inviting him to their homes for Shabbat meals. Plus you could picket outside his place of business." Rabbi Jacks has exerted pressure himself, speaking to the boss of a recalcitrant husband. "That person in the end decided to do the correct thing," he says happily.

A new frontier in shaming is Facebook. Right now friends of a young Melbourne agunah are hounding her husband online. "This is your last chance to do the right thing and stop playing games before you are absolutely vilified on social media worldwide," types one woman.

Talya Faigenbaum runs Faigenbaum Family Lawyers. I squint when I walk into the firm's boardroom, trying to figure out if she's wearing a sheitel, the wig a married orthodox woman sometimes wears, for modesty reasons, to cover her real hair. If she is wigged, I know I shouldn't shake her hand. In small communities, there are so many cues and codes, invisible to outsiders. (I reckon it's a sheitel; I don't shake).

Faigenbaum is representing an agunah in a Victorian magistrates' court. Only weeks before we meet, she had a breakthrough in her case. She had argued that gett refusal was a form of spousal abuse. Victoria's Family Violence Protection Act contains a clause, not usually seen in this type of legislation: it is considered abuse to prevent your partner from keeping connections with his or her spiritual beliefs or practices. The magistrate agreed with Faigenbaum's argument that gett refusal stopped a woman from moving on with her Jewish life.

"This is just stepping in the waters," Faigenbaum tells me. "The next step would be to make it clear in the Intervention Order that his failure to comply with the beth din in granting the gett is a breach of the order. And that would be recognised immediately by police."

"So a man might eventually get chucked in jail for not signing the gett?"

"Yeah," Faigenbaum says. "Then we'd be on the same terms as Israel. There, the secular courts can take certain steps. Cancelling credit cards, cancelling driver's licences, all the way up until imprisoning someone until he complies with the ruling of the beth din."

Doreen Beckwith sits in a plush armchair in a small unit in Elsternwick, Melbourne. A former model, the 91-year-old is presumed to be Australia's oldest agunah. Her story illustrates another layer of gett torment. What happens when your husband becomes a missing person?

"He was handsome," Beckwith says of Victor, whom she married in England in 1943. "Naturally, when you're 17, handsome is very important."

Two years later Victor jumped on a ship to Australia, following the birth of their son. He promised to send for her soon. After waiting for two years, she could stand it no longer. She and her son took the six-week trip and joined him in a small town north of Brisbane. They had a second child, a daughter.

"When she was five weeks old, he said again, 'Look, it's not going right here. I'm going to go to Sydney. I'll start afresh and I'll send for you.' "

She never saw Victor again. She thinks he was in over his head with gambling debts, either running from the law or creditors.

"He was running away the whole time, yes. Either that, or he was murdered. I say that because of the type of people he must have owed money to."

Jewish law says a woman is free to remarry if her husband dies. But there must be proof. And there was none in the case of Victor. If the husband's just missing, you can't remarry. Beckwith returned to England and fell in love with another Jewish man, Colin. He knew, under the circumstances, they couldn't be married "He started looking for Victor," Beckwith says. "He spent thousands of pounds in Australia, private detectives, searches for death certificates. This is what we wanted, a death certificate, but we never found one because the obvious thing to us was that he had changed his name."

Colin searched for Victor for nine years. The London beth din said there was nothing they could do without a gett or death certificate. Then Doreen and Colin heard a local rabbi was to visit Israel.

Recalls Doreen: "Colin said to him, 'Go put this before the rabbinical court in Jerusalem and see what will happen.' The rabbi went and duly did as he was told to do. The answer that came back was this: 'If this man, Victor, was a good man, who was always good and kind to his family, to his children, to his mother, this man would probably be dead because he would've been wanting to get in touch with his family. But this man was a bad man. He was bad to his mother, he was bad to his wife. He looked after himself. Therefore, he's still alive. No gett.'

"When Colin heard that, he thought ... can I swear?"

"Yeah, of course."

"He thought, 'Bugger it.' He said, 'We'll get married.' We went to West London Synagogue and we got married."

West London Synagogue is a liberal, as opposed to an orthodox, synagogue. So, I think to myself, not only can agunot remarry under civil law, they can remarry under liberal Jewish law.

Most Jews won't do this, though. In a situation, understandably confusing to non-Jews, most Jewish Australians are secular but insist on belonging to orthodox synagogues - and often look down their noses at liberal ones - to maintain their cultural traditions.

"Did you have children with Colin?"

"We never had children because a child would be a mamzer," Doreen Beckwith says. "A bastard. Yes. Straightforward bastard."

For most of the women I meet, the mamzer issue is what it boils down to. Australian woman Lana Krain was married here to an Israeli-Australian. Five years later, he cleared off.

"I managed to find him a year later in Israel. I did ask for a gett." She didn't get one. "That was just him. I just laughed and said, 'Don't worry about it.' "

She remarried, to a Jew who, like her, wasn't religious. It was a civil ceremony. She felt no stigma among her family or circle of friends. But then, "we talked about having children. We couldn't because they would be considered bastards in the religion. They would not be allowed to marry in a synagogue."

Nearly all the women I speak to think the gett laws are preposterous. And other laws in the Torah, too. They don't hold the beth din in high regard. Or rabbis in general. They're happy to scream at a rabbi at a meeting. They put their names to posts mocking the Jewish law on Facebook. Talya Faigenbaum, an orthodox woman, has no inhibition dragging a Jewish man through court and fighting the system like a Chassidic Erin Brockovich. From one angle it seems a community of free spirits and feminists.

Yet the same women can't unchain themselves from tradition. The rabbis will smugly declare that it's because every Jew, no matter how secular and cynical, has a neshoma, a Jewish soul sparkling inside. But maybe we're just all in a cult.

I ask Doreen Beckwith why she and Colin chased Victor for a decade, trying to secure a gett or death certificate. "Why not get married in a liberal synagogue, on day one? Did you think God would be angry with -"

"No, it's nothing to do with God!" she interrupts. "It is your principles and how you look at these things, how you feel about future generations. No, no, it's nothing to do with God. Nothing at all!"

The story The 'chained women' whose husbands refuse them a divorce first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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