EXCLUSIVE: Chief Rabbi steps in as rabbinical courts accused of siding with domestic abusers

The Federation of Synagogues said it would refuse to approve a get to any woman who initiated a criminal prosecution against her husband


Break up, divorce, shared custody of children and breaking family apart concept. Bad parenting. Legal fight about kids. Couple ripping a paper with man, woman and child icon.

The Chief Rabbi has personally intervened in a desperate attempt to calm a dispute over religious divorce, the JC can reveal, with campaigners warning that rabbinical courts are siding with domestic abusers at the expense of their victims.

Last week, the Federation of Synagogues warned that it would refuse to approve a get to any woman who initiated a criminal prosecution against her husband for “coercive and controlling behaviour” under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

Proposed legislation will allow a woman to apply to the English courts if her husband has been persistently abusive by refusing her a get. But the courts cannot force a husband to issue a get. They can, however, penalise his abuse.

But senior dayanim ruled in a statement that because a get has to be given of “free will”, legal action would make it “halachically impossible” for a wife to be granted one if she resorted to court action.

This raised fears that coercive and controlling men who refused to release their wives from marriages would be untouched by the new law.

The Federation’s statement triggered widespread outrage in the community, with parliamentarians, lawyers and activists lining up to denounce the rabbis.

Baroness Altmann, one of four Jewish peers who worked on amendments to the act, together with Lord Mendelsohn, Lord Palmer and Baroness Deech, said her “heart was breaking” at the response of the Federation, adding that the rabbis had placed themselves on the side of the domestic “abusers”.

Barrister Daniel Greenberg called the Federation Beth Din ruling “an extraordinarily damaging and worrying piece of doublethink”. Yehudis Fletcher, founder of Nahamu, a body set up to counter extremism in the Jewish community, accused the court of “dysfunction and misogyny”.

Now the the Chief Rabbi is to convene meetings between the rabbinical courts, parliamentarians, lawyers, communal bodies and women’s rights campaigners to attempt resolve the issue.

Peers are planning to establish an All-Party Parliamentary Group to tackle the issue. A spokesperson said the aim was to ensure "a clear separation between halacha and secular law" and "to give voice to the women who need help to be able to live their lives as they wish".

In response to the outrage over the Federation statement, the London Beth Din said: “Refusing to give a get is unquestionably wrong and a form of abuse. The London Beth Din has never, and would never, prevent a woman from reporting a crime under English law. All crimes should be reported.”

Baroness Altmann said the London Beth Din statement was “music to my ears”, adding that it “absolutely confirmed my view that the Beth Din is trying to help.”

In response to the earlier Federation statement, however, Baroness Altmann had said that “I can only hope and assume that they [the Federation] have misunderstood the situation. What [the rabbis] seem to be saying is that a woman who is a victim of abuse can’t protect herself. And if she tries to protect herself in English law, she finds that the religious courts are on the side of the abuser. It’s not my idea of religion.”

In Britain today there are thought to be around 30 ongoing cases of agunot, spread out over different rabbinical courts.

Mr Greenberg called the Federation Beth Din statement “an extraordinarily damaging and worrying piece of doublethink”.

He added: “If you prosecute, or threaten to prosecute, without the Beth Din having said something first, that throws a spanner in the works. But they [the rabbis] are perfectly happy for the dayanim to say to a woman, pay him £30,000 to give a get. That apparently doesn’t vitiate the man’s free will. But to say that you are causing your wife mental damage, which happens to be as much against the criminal law of this country as physical damage, and therefore there will be consequences —apparently that does vitiate his free will. And that doublethink is just scandalous.”

Other Jewish peers who worked on the amendments with Baroness Altmann were also scathing.

Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn accused the rabbinical judges of “crossing a line” on public policy and Baroness Deech said she could not “think of anything sadder than holding up the divorce of a woman still in her childbearing years, for so long that by the time she’s free, she’s too old to have children. I find this situation really upsetting and demeaning.”

Yehudis Fletcher, founder of Nahamu, a body set up to counter extremism in the Jewish community, said she feared there had been “a spectacular misunderstanding and misapplication of the law” and accused the rabbinical judges of placing responsibility for reporting crimes, such as domestic abuse, on the victim.

The reason for this approach, said Ms Fletcher, was the “dysfunction and misogyny” at the “root of all their reasoning”.

The angry responses were triggered by a lengthy statement released last week by four senior Federation rabbis, including the head of its Beth Din, Rabbi Shraga Zimmerman, who reiterated that Jewish law states that a get, given or received under “duress”, is not valid.

The new guidance to the Domestic Abuse Act allows for a spouse to apply to the civil courts for rulings against “coercive and controlling behaviour”, precisely because an estranged husband has refused to issue a get.

But the Federation says that if a woman does so, “she will have tied the Beth Din’s hands…clearly the husband in such a situation will be acting under duress, under the threat of a financial penalty and a possible custodial sentence, and the Beth Din is plainly not able to arrange a get that has no validity whatsoever in halacha”.

Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn said: “They [the dayanim] have crossed a line on public policy, which has put them into territory which is just beyond dangerous. …they just have no conception about a proper appreciation for the role, status and rights of women”.

He said he believed that all the Batei Din were working in concert, adding that his non-Jewish parliamentary colleagues “think that on paper, the Batei Din are worse than the sharia courts.

“Yet again the Batei Din are missing the point, just as they did over child sex abuse. The amendments in the Domestic Abuse Act provide support for victims to have full recourse to the English courts. No-one is going to apologise for proposing such measures, or give rights of veto to Batei Din in relation to these criminal matters,” Lord Mendelsohn said.

Ms Fletcher attacked what she saw as a “spectacular misunderstanding and misapplication of the law”.

She said that the dayanim had “inadvertently shown their hand in how they perceive anybody who reports any abuse to the police. They see reporting any crime, including domestic abuse, get refusal, sex abuse, as something which, when reported, the responsibility is on the victim.”

Ms Fletcher explained that this was the key reason why the rabbinical authorities did not support the Domestic Abuse Act — “it disrupts the system”. A spokesman for the London Beth Din told the JC that the reverse was true, and that its rabbis had been at the forefront of helping change the law in the Divorce Reform Act almost 20 years ago.

Ms Fletcher said the numbers of chained wives were much higher than those acknowledged by the different Batei Din, and added that “those women who have received a get have paid through the nose for it. Most of my friends who have a get have paid cash sums for it, ranging between giving up their equity in the [family] house to £10,000 in an envelope.”

In response, the London Beth Din said: “It is unacceptable to tell a woman (or a man) to pay sums of money in exchange for a get. It is also unacceptable to ask a woman (or a man) to give up equity in a jointly owned property. This plays no part in a get procedure with the London Beth Din”.

Ms Fletcher said she did not believe that the spotlight should be on the individual refuser, as much as on the Batei Din themselves. She said: “The root of all the nonsense comes from the dysfunctional way in which Batei Din manage gittin, providing a de facto incentive for men to withhold a get. It’s these attitudes from the rabbinate that allows get refusers to behave in that way… we have uncovered the dysfunction and misogyny at the root of all their reasoning.”

A spokesperson for Jewish Women’s Aid, which was part of the working group that advocated for get refusal to be recognised as an example of coercive and controlling behaviour in the Domestic Abuse Act, said that the organisation had initiated communication with the Federation Beth Din and the London Beth Din “to discuss our concerns and find a way to move forward in the best interests of chained women.

“Our overriding aim remains to support abused women. We will continue to do this and want to reassure Jewish women that we are here to support them on this issue”.

Daniel Greenberg said the issue came down to power and that the religious courts had “made themselves irrelevant because they have completely failed to self-regulate the community. The rabbinic institutions of the community have failed. It is an admission of failure by the community that we have to turn to secular law, because we have not regulated ourselves”.

He added: “This sort of mental abuse is now a crime. If a woman is being refused a get, as a matter of law she is the victim of a crime — of emotional abuse, of which the refusal of a get is a component.

“She is being told by the Beth Din that she must not lay a complaint against the man for breaching the criminal law — or they will impose religious sanctions against her. I think that is potentially a perversion of the course of justice. The United Kingdom has decided that it is criminal to abuse women. It has nothing to do with the Beth Din”.

Ultimately, said Mr Greenberg, “You could have cases of dayanim indicted —this could seriously backfire on the religious institutions.”

Baroness Deech emphasised that this was a fight over “human rights”, adding that “if the rabbis, over the centuries, have managed to get rid of polygamy, to invent the eruv, you would have thought they could find a way to ensure the human rights of a handful of trapped women every year.

“I can’t think of anything sadder than holding up the divorce of a woman still in her childbearing years, for so long that by the time she’s free, she’s too old to have children. I find this situation really upsetting and demeaning”. The London Beth Din spokesman said most cases with which it dealt were concluded quickly, though acknowledging that “one aguna is one aguna too many”.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Palmer labelled it a “disgrace” that rabbinic judges were “rejecting potential help” for agunot from English courts before seeing information on specific cases.

He said: “So, in the meantime, I think UK law should be used to incarcerate the offender, so that in solitude the guy can contemplate and bemoan his fate.

“The woman will still not be free, but at least she will perhaps have some satisfaction. A man who makes coercive demands on the breakup of the marriage should be subject to UK law. Attitudes need to change so that a get is freely given —albeit from a prison cell”.

Baroness Altmann also sought to highlight that the aim of the amended guidance was to try to help the Beth Din.

It was, she added, “to ensure that Jewish women, who want to stay frum, are helped and protected and not left suffering as so many of them have been, at the mercy of husbands who are abusing them and trying to exert unfair control, or extort money from them.

She continued: “The rabbonim and dayanim have always said they want to help. This legislation would be, and could be, a way of helping, because what it establishes is for British men and British women who are subject to our law, there are circumstances in which women can be subject to abusive control by husbands — and there is now some way for them to protect themselves.”

But she added: “That is very different from saying — and I certainly never would — that British courts can order a man to give a get. That was never in any way an intention, and it is not possible.

“What the courts can do, though, is offer support to the woman — the Domestic Abuse Act ensures that women who are abused have some support from the local authority and the Abuse Commissioner.”

She was aware of numerous cases of chained wives when she was growing up, she said, “and that was considered normal, even ok. I’m afraid in 21st century Britain it isn’t ok. And the law was actually changed in 2015, so it surprises me that the dayanim are suggesting that it was changed now. The ‘controlling and coercive behaviour’ offence was put into law in 2015.”

The new legislation, Baroness Altmann said, was to clarify that even if a couple were estranged, abuse — in the shape of withholding of a get — could still be taking place.

Last week the London Beth Din said: “When the dayanim of the London Beth Din were approached by the proposers of this initiative, [the Statutory Guidance to the Act], the dayanim cautioned against and advised of the serious halachic challenges, and moreover the counterproductive consequences, the initiative would cause.

“In the current circumstances, the London Beth Din strongly advises women who are denied a get not to press charges, or threaten to do so until discussing the matter with a Beth Din, to avoid a situation where it would not be possible for a get to be given.

“Recalcitrant spouses who refuse to give or accept a get are unquestionably wrong and are exercising a form of abuse.

“The London Beth Din leaves no stone unturned in our efforts to support agunot and resolve their cases.”

Last week a spokesman for the Federation Beth Din said: “The Beth Din will be happy to meet Baroness Altmann and indeed anyone else who can assist the Beth Din in applying halachically effective solutions to the issue of recalcitrant spouses.”

The Federation refused to allow the JC to publish a fuller statement this week unless it was used in its entirety. At the time of going to press the federation had not supplied a new statement.


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