A strictly Orthodox woman featured in a new television programme dealing with gittin (religious divorces) has revealed that in desperation she obtained a get from a non-Orthodox religious authority.
Miriam Saleh speaks for the first time about her five-year ordeal of trying to obtain a get from her husband in the Channel 4 documentary Revelations: Divorce – Jewish Styleo be screened on Sunday.
The programme is the first for many years to deal with the situation faced by the agunah — “a chained woman” whose husband will not agree to give her a religious divorce — both here and in Israel.
Speaking exclusively to the JC, Ms Saleh described why she took the decision to go a non-Orthodox authority in Britain — though she would not say which — and the consequences of her action.
“There will be peace in the Middle East before I get a [Orthodox] get,” said Ms Saleh, who obtained a civil divorce two years ago.
“I have obtained a non-Orthodox get out of sheer frustration and desperation after five years of waiting. But I must stress that I am still an Orthodox woman. I have always lived an Orthodox life, and it gives me strength.
“I have taken my own stance. It was not easy to do this and the authority to which I went was also not happy because I was an Orthodox woman — why was I going there?
“But it was a very interesting experience because they treated me with respect and dignity, which is the way it should be.”
Ms Saleh said she was well aware that she might be shunned by the Orthodox community. “There will be consequences. But can it be any worse than it is now? I know I’m going to be shunned, because I have spoken out, but I have waited five years and I have had enough. It’s not as though it’s not part of our religion — it’s there and I am entitled to it.”
The 38-year-old mother of two sons said she took part in the programme “because it is high time frum women spoke out instead of being frightened”. She was put in touch with the programme makers by the Agunah Campaign.
Ms Saleh has been to the London Beth Din; the batei din of the strictly Orthodox Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations; the Federation of Synagogues; and the Spanish and Portuguese authorities, as her ex-husband is Sephardi. She was scathing about the role played by rabbis.
“It’s not like I have been to just one Beth Din — I have been to four. The rabbis say ‘we feel for you’ and ‘we feel your pain’. I’m not interested in pain or feelings — I want a get.
“The Beth Din, dayanim and rabbis all have power. Why do they allow an Orthodox man to carry on about his business like this, and not give a get?”
She said that men were asked what they wanted and would give a get only if money changed hands.
“They (the rabbis) listen and listen. I’m sick of talking. I don’t want to speak or listen, I want a get. The rabbis will not face up to this issue.
“I have 25 rabbonim on my mobile and I’m sick of running after them. They never ring me back. I just feel there is so much happening in the world, and there’s nothing I can do about it because men have a complete hold, won’t let it go and the rabbis encourage it.”
There was one man she praised — her solicitor David Whiteman, “who was the only person who has stood by me throughout all of this”.
Ms Saleh is one of a number of women from Britain and Israel featured in the programme. Another is British-born and Israeli-based Susan Zinkin, who has been waiting 47 years for her get, and a second woman, also called Susan, who did not wait for her get before starting a new relationship and having a baby.
There are interviews with senior rabbis in Britain, including Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, head of the Federation of Synagogues’ Beth Din, and Manchester Beth Din’s Rabbi Yehuda Brodie. The London Beth Din declined to take part.
The programme also features the Israeli government department which deals with errant husbands, including an interview with Rabbi Osher Ehrentreu, son of Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, former head of the London Beth Din.
In Israel, the get forms part of state law. While husbands can be imprisoned for withholding it, they cannot be compelled to give one.
THE MAN WHO UNEARTHED HER STORY
Programme producer and director John Edginton has “previous” with the Jewish community. He made a series in 2004 on the Manchester Jewish community, focusing on the Manchester Beth Din and the everyday lives of people living under the tenets of Jewish law.
“We touched on virtually every aspect of Jewish life, including this one. We felt it was a complex area that deserved a separate programme. When the Channel 4 commissioning editor for religious programmes said he wanted to develop a new strand about religious issues, I thought it was time to raise the idea and he liked it,” said Mr Edginton, who is not Jewish.
“I knew there had been a programme about 12 to 15 years ago on the BBC’s Everyman strand but as far as I knew, nothing since. An awful lot has happened and changed on the issue of Jewish divorce, including the failed conference in Israel. I had the contacts from the Manchester programmes and that’s where we started off and found one case.”
Mr Edginton found the Israeli side of the issue “fascinating and a bit of a revelation”.
He said: “We found that the Israeli rabbinical courts are taking a much tougher line against husbands, but that’s because it is the law of the land and there is more pressure on them (husbands).
“Also, the secular Jew is as affected by the law as the Orthodox Jew. They all have to go to rabbinic court and that makes for a very volatile situation.
“But the law is still with the husband there. He still has the right to refuse.”