EXCLUSIVE: Jewish courts placing themselves on the side of domestic ‘abusers’, says despairing peer

Orthodox rabbis said they could not approve a divorce for a ‘chained wife’ seeking redress through the courts


A despairing Jewish peer has accused rabbinical courts of being on the side of domestic “abusers” after senior Orthodox ministers said they could not approve a religious divorce for a ‘chained wife’ who seeks redress through the legal system.   

Baroness Altmann was one of four Jewish members of the Lords who helped to craft amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act in order to help protect agunot suffering from abusive, coercive behaviour by their husbands.   

Lady Altmann said that she “wanted to weep” when she read a statement from senior rabbis of the Federation of Synagogues warning that amendments to the act which allow a chained wife to apply to the civil courts on the grounds of coercion meant it could be halachically “impossible” for an agunah to get a divorce.

The rabbis reasoned that a get forced on a husband by a court would be “a get given under duress”, which would be “ absolutely invalid as a matter of halacha [Jewish law]”. 

Lady Altmann, who worked on the legal amendments with Baroness Deech, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, told the JC: “My heart breaks. I can only hope and assume that they 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 British law, she finds that the religious courts are on the side of the abuser. It’s not my  idea of religion”.

The peeress was responding to a lengthy statement from four senior Federation rabbis, including the head of its Bet Din, Rabbi Shraga Zimmerman, who has been in post since January 2020, moving to London from Gateshead.

Jewish law states that a get given or received under compulsion is not valid.

The new amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act allow 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 aget

But the Federation says that if a woman does so, “she will have tied the Beit 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 Beit Din is plainly not able to arrange a get that has no validity whatsoever in halacha”.

Lady Altmann said: “The whole aim of this [amended law] is to try and help the Beit Din. If they truly want to ensure that Jewish women, who want to stay frum and stay within the religious boundaries and requirements, 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…there are lots of ways in which husbands play games with their get and exercise power unfairly against the woman.”

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 Lady Altmann 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.” 

While she “fully respected” that the dayanim were experts in halacha, Lady Altmann said: “What they seem to be trying to say is that halacha is on the side of an abuser, and that any woman who tries to protect herself legally [is in the wrong]. Withholding a get, just because you can, is not reasonable behaviour, it is abusive behaviour”.

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 only thing which hadn’t yet happened was that it hadn’t yet been fought in the courts to establish that a religious Jewish wife, who wasn’t necessarily living with her husband, but was still religiously married, was actually in what the law termed ‘an intimate family relationship’. That hadn’t yet been established in court”.

The new legislation, Lady 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.

“And we did not want to force some poor Jewish woman to go to court to establish that. The law just makes it clear”. 

She added: “I am frum and I want to remain so. But the dayanim seem to view this legislation as a threat to their authority, rather than a way of helping women. It should have done the Beit Din a favour, and the same for Orthodox Judaism and women”.

Lady Altmann said that she and others involved in devising the legislation had asked to meet both the Federation and the London Beth Din to explain and clarify the details of the new amendments, but had not so far been successful.

A spokesperson for the London Beth Din said: "Any advance in English law which can help the plight of agunot is to be welcomed. Recalcitrant spouses who refuse to give or accept a get are unquestionably wrong and are exercising a form of abuse. They should be shunned by all and be the subject of communal opprobrium.

"The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, in relation to gittin, does pose a serious challenge halachically: a man (or woman) must give (and receive) a get of their own free will and if he or she is pressured into doing so because of a fear of being penalised under the new Act, then the get would not be considered as being given willingly and as such would not be valid.

"When the Dayanim of the London Beth Din were approached by the proposers of this initiative, 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.

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

A spokesman for the Federation said, “At no stage did Baroness Altmann, nor anyone else involved in the drafting of the new legislation, reach out to contact the Federation Beth Din, not before the law was enacted and not since.

"Furthermore, it is evident that Baroness Altmann has not read the letter issued by the Beth Din, as many of the issues raised in her reported comments are dealt with therein.

"The Beth Din will be happy to meet Baroness Altmann and indeed with anyone else who can assist the Beth Din in applying Halachically effective solutions to the issue of recalcitrant spouses .”

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