Zvia Gordetsky is refusing to eat because Charedi politicians are blocking a new bill that would empower the state to free agunot — chained women — by retrospectively nullifying their marriages.
Aliza Lavie MK, a signatory to the bill, criticised the Charedi MKs: “I don’t know what they will tell the creator at the end of their lives because they haven’t been brave enough to help this woman after 17 years.”
Mrs Gordetsky says she has lived a life of loneliness and financial hardship since she walked out on her husband in 2000, claiming he was violent.
He refused her a divorce — and was imprisoned — and she would not take another partner while married, so she has lived alone and struggled to make ends meet as a single mother. She said: “I wanted to get married again, I wanted more children. Now I’m 53, I can’t.”
Mrs Gordetsky’s hunger strike involves forgoing all food except for Shabbat, as Jewish law bans fasting on Shabbat in most circumstances: “It’s hard and it’s tiring but what gives me strength is that I’m getting lots of support from other women”.
Her struggle has become iconic for some Orthodox campaigners. Sivan Leib-Jacobson, spokeswoman for the religious feminist alliance Kolech, said: “This is a woman who walks among us and who doesn’t look like a prisoner but has been a prisoner the last 17 years, and a solution needs to be found.”
The proposed bill seeks to let the state declare that the marriages of agunot were not valid unions, by suggesting that the wedding ring used during the service never belonged to the man. The state would use its powers to retrospectively confiscate any money spent to obtain the ring.
Although the bill is now on ice, Knesset sources say that members of the Charedi establishment — including the Chief Rabbinate and some politicians — have agreed to talk about possible compromises over the bill.
But few observers expect the talks to succeed. Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the moderate Orthodox group Tzohar and one of the most vocal critics of the Orthodox establishment, said: “I don’t see any chance the Charedi parties will allow this to happen.”
The Charedi establishment is against any move that would give the state control in areas where rabbis have traditionally had autonomy, such as marriage and divorce.
The bill is also seen by many to be on shaky ground in terms of Jewish law.
When the JC contacted Yerach Toker, a spokesman for Moshe Gafni, the United Torah Judaism party member who speaks on religious issues, Mr Toker hung up when he was told the subject of the call.
Mrs Gordetsky argues that if rabbis were serious about helping agunot they would find a mechanism: “Just as the rabbis found solutions of Shabbat hotplates and Shabbat lifts, they need to find a solution to this.”
But Nachum Eisenstein, a Jerusalem rabbi who is close to key figures in Charedi establishment, defended the Orthodox position on agunot: “The state has no authority to interfere with a purely halachic issue. It has given authority over marriage and divorce to the Chief Rabbinate and the state has no right to intervene.”
“These are not acceptable halachic parameters and any rabbi who would agree to such a proposal, even though he may call himself Orthodox, would really be Conservative or Reform.
Benjamin Stowe, a lawyer and expert on family law in the UK, said: “It is high time that the modern Israeli state looked to the secular nature of its obligations to end what, on any reasonable view, is a gross injustice.”