Chained to an outdated system

The Altneu shul in Prague's historic Jewish quarter is famous for several reasons, not least as the home of the golem. It's also the oldest active synagogue in Europe; an imposing, gothic structure that could be mistaken for a church if you didn't know better.

What I remember most, as a teenager on a youth movement tour, was the ladies' gallery. Actually, "gallery" is too grand a term; at the Altneu, women are confined to a vestibule with only narrow slit windows through which to see the goings on of the service.

As 17-year-olds with buckets of righteous indignation - many of us from United Synagogue congregations - we raged against this injustice. Watching our male peers walk into the thick of Kabbalat Shabbat, while we were banished to the outskirts, was unacceptable.

Of course, the Altneu was constructed in 1270, when this was hardly the most unfair thing about being a woman, Jewish or otherwise. We wouldn't stand for such blatant discrimination today, would we? Chasidic communities where women are forced on to separate pavements or men throw stones at "immodest" prepubescent girls aside, 2012 is a pretty good time to be an Orthodox Jewish woman. Sure, when it comes to reading from the Torah or singing in front of men, there seems to have been little development since the dark ages. As I heard one father asking recently, why in the 21st century could his daughter not be called up for her batmitzvah?

My favourite is Yael, who worked a tent peg to her advantage

But if progress on paper is slow, it doesn't necessarily reflect the wider reality. One only has to look at the animated discussions that go on at LSJS, at Limmud, on campus and in youth movements, to see that 21st-century Orthodox women - at least those in US shuls - won't settle for second-class status. Today, Orthodox women are expected and encouraged to study, to engage with the faith, just as they are with the non-religious world.

Indeed, Judaism is a great place to find feminist role-models, from warrior prophetess Deborah to loyal Ruth, or Esther, who plotted and planned to save her people. My favourite is Yael, who worked a tent peg to her advantage, offing Sisera and ensuring the Israelites' victory, albeit by dubious means.

Slowly, the slits in the windows are getting bigger. But there is one area which seems stuck in a ghastly status quo: divorce. It was pleasing to read last week of the British rabbis who intervened in the sad case of Beth Alexander, whose Viennese husband refused to grant her a get - the holy grail that allows a Jewish divorcée to remarry and have future children accepted by the community. Her husband's defiance was apparently based in their custody battle; a religious law being used to hold a woman hostage.

Across the Atlantic, a case that has been making waves is that of Tamar Friedman, a chained wife whose husband has been targeted in a social media campaign. Yet, despite his high-profile status - he is a senior aide to a congressman - and lashings of public pressure, the case remains unresolved.

The tide may well be turning; rabbis may now be more willing to support wives over husbands, to place sanctions on recalcitrant men. There are safeguards cropping up; halachic pre-nups designed to ensure a get is given if a marriage dissolves. But, as the London Beth Din's David Frei admitted to the JC, "the bottom line is you cannot force someone to give a get, so it does not necessarily work".

Orthodoxy, unsurprisingly, is at odds with other branches of Judaism on this. The Reform movement will grant a get to either husband or wife if they have obtained a civil divorce. Liberal Jews don't require one at all to remarry in shul. But the escape route for permanently chained wives should not be limited to adopting a religious persuasion out of desperation.

In 2012, Orthodox women may have a better view of the service, but divorce remains solely in the hand of men. As someone who wants to believe that modern Orthodoxy is willing to move with the times, this seems to me a sorry state of affairs.

Last updated: 9:45am, July 6 2012