Divorce is never easy, and for many Jewish women the prospect is made even worse by the necessity of obtaining a get.
Even if there is no problem about obtaining the get — and there often is — the ceremony in which the paper is placed in your hand by your ex-husband is dreaded by many.
But, for some, the religious process can be healing. Teacher and poet, Amy Schreibman Walter, says the pastoral care she received from the Beth Din was in stark contrast to the cold civil process, where she felt like “a cog on a conveyor belt…
“They were extremely supportive of me as a Jewish wife,” says Schreibman Walter, whose marriage broke down after just seven months. The speed at which her husband sought a divorce meant she was not initially ready to receive the get, and she valued the Beth Din trying to save the marriage. “They called my ex-husband several times and also spoke to him in person to try to persuade him to stay in the marriage and to attend mediation.” While they were unsuccessful — as were friends and family — she is grateful they tried.
In an essay, she described the ceremony, in which a dayan was the proxy for her husband.
“The get document itself is beautiful, written in thick black pen, Aramaic calligraphy. The dayan folded the get into a small square, a swift little origami masterpiece, and then he showed me the right way to cup my hands. Every part of it needed to touch the palm of my hand.
“I stood face to face with this geriatric man. Breathing heavily and hunched over, he was the exact opposite of my husband in age, in posture, in piousness. This was a big moment. The moment I said my own ‘yes,’ accepting the get into my hands, I would be divorced.
“In the civil divorce, my ‘yes’ wasn’t something I ever had to vocalise in front of a room of witnesses. The ‘yes’ of my civil divorce had been a more quiet kind of confirmation — my signature, over and over again, on paper.
“My knees wobbly, I stood and looked in the eyes of the elderly man. ‘Yes,’ I said, in a strong voice. This had not been an easy ‘yes’ to come to. But the answer was yes, finally.
“Yes to bidding goodbye to the hopes and dreams I had of a life with my husband. Yes to no longer being married to a man who didn’t want to be married.”
Some marriages end, but the husbands are still reluctant to grant a get, turning their unfortunate wives into agunot, chained wives. Orthodox divorce law inevitably rests power with the man, and high-profile cases have perpetuated a sense that the cards in Jewish courts are stacked against women. But they have an ally in Joanne Greenaway, the London Beth Din’s get caseworker who has made it her mission to unchain Jewish women stuck in cruel limbo.
“Whilst I am a neutral party, my role also allows me to provide a female listening-ear to women and to help represent their perspective amongst the dayanim,” she explains. “I’m accessible to help them along the process, provide reassurance, compassion, advice and direction.”
She is making headway, both in unravelling some of the thorniest cases and in helping women navigate a difficult process.
Get refusal affects thousands of Jewish women from across the spectrum of the community. The London Beth Din deals with up to 150 new applications a year. “Many are resolved easily,” Greenaway says. “Some take longer — it depends on a large variety of factors, including what is going on in the civil divorce.”
Apart from within Liberal Judaism, without a get, women are unable to remarry in a Jewish ceremony. Although some go on to wed in civil ceremonies, this has implications for any children born in a new relationship. It can be also seen as a form of abuse. “Generally get refusal is an exercise of power and control — it often demonstrates an abusive pattern of behaviour,” explains Greenaway. “Sometimes it is motivated by desperation and denial but often it is motivated by anger, spite or revenge.”
She has been stunned by some cases, especially when get refusers are supported by family and friends. “It is shocking to see the halachic process abused by people who seem to have lost their moral compass and nonetheless manage to justify their behaviour to themselves.”
Abigail, who separated from her husband in 2014 after a lengthy relationship, endured a two-and-a-half year fight. Despite this, she says that, after a traumatic marriage, the Beth Din went above and beyond to make her feel safe and protected.
From her solicitors she received an error-strewn letter telling her the divorce was complete. “It all just felt a bit ‘nothingy’,” she recalls. In contrast, receiving the get was very emotional. “I cried my way through, not sadness but relief which I hadn’t experienced in the civil court. It felt like an ending and release.”
From the outset, it was clear her former spouse would not co-operate. Greenaway’s advice was indispensable, particularly around how her civil lawyer could utilise the Religious Marriage Act 2002, which allows parties to ask a judge to delay a decree absolute until a religious divorce is finalised. “I would never have got the get without this.”
It’s but one tool in the Beth Din’s armoury; Greenaway also uses informal mediation and threats of communal sanctions.
“It will always depend on the context, the individuals concerned and the community to which they belong,” she says. It can also be about understanding the recalcitrant party’s motivations, and about sheer perseverance. “Where one strategy is unsuccessful, we try another and another.”
For Sophie, who lives in north London but was married in France to an Israeli, Greenaway worked with the Israeli authorities to end her five-year wait, which endured long after the civil divorce. “The Beth Din saved me,” says Sophie.
Greenaway connected her with an Israeli organisation called Mavoi Satum. Sophie explains:“We waited for him to go to Israel. We asked the Beth Din there to stop him from coming back to the UK unless he gave me the get. He had no choice than to accept if he wanted to get back and eventually he did.” To other women in her situation, she says simply: “Believe it will happen one day.”
For Valerie Cocks, an agunah for 50 years, finally obtaining her get was “a long, drawn out and detailed process”, culminating in Greenaway preparing a public notice (a siruv), alerting the Belgian community to her former husband’s get refusal. He chose to avoid the negative publicity — Lady Cocks is till astonished at his U-turn.
When she first applied for a divorce, she was a rarity. Nowadays, it’s far more common, and Greenaway is working to guard against women becoming agunot, by pushing for a get immediately rather than when a split has become acrimonious. “This also helps to prevent the get being used as leverage during a civil divorce.”
Before they marry, Orthodox couples are asked to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, committing them to certain undertakings around the get. Both Sophie and Abigail signed theirs not expecting to need it; the fact remains that it is an unenforceable document given the nature of Jewish divorce law. Even with all Greenaway’s tactics, a man cannot be compelled to grant a get.
Behind this lies a wider issue — for all that the Beth Din may be prioritising pastoral care, Orthodox Jewish divorce is not a level playing field. “It felt like there was no equality between man and woman as I needed to wait for my husband to accept,” says Sophie.
Abigail has been so scarred by her experience that she shudders at repeating it.
“I would like to meet someone but the idea of marriage is still scary,” echoes Sophie. Yet they cannot fault the Beth Din and stress that women worrying about getting a get should approach the court at the earliest stage.
“Even if you think there is no possibility that your husband will comply, contact the Beth Din,” says Abigail.
“I had no idea when I made that first call how amazing they would be.”