Forbidden: Riki Raani’s amazing struggle to get a divorce – and be set free
Riki Raani struggled for almost 20 years to get a divorce from her husband, a member of one of London’s most extreme Hasidic sects • Last August, she convinced the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court to annul her kiddushin, or wedding vows, as part of an unusual and rare procedure, finally certain that her nightmare had ended • However, the unusual ruling angered a number of senior rabbinical judges and they attacked it in a sharply worded letter sent to hundreds of Haredi WhatsApp groups in Israel • The pressure achieved the desired result and the rabbinical judges in Tel Aviv backed down, withdrawing their decision. She once again found herself in marital “prison,” once again an agunah, without any hope • “The system decided to wage its political battles on my back,” she says. “I must make my voice heard.“
Hanan Greenwood | May 26, 2022
What does it feel like to wake up one morning and realize that half of your life has already gone by, and you have been left alone on the stage with no co-actors, no support? The sun illuminating the day has left a single ray on the road on which you stand. You realize that the time that has gone can never be retrieved, that the children that could have filled you with infinite joy and the home and life you always dreamed of remain no more than a dream.
“And the best part is hearing the reactions to the dereliction with which I have to contend. ‘It’s not us; it’s the husband’s fault.’ A lovely answer, except for a tiny problem – you’ve confused the issue. The dereliction is yours, because you surrendered when you had the authority in your hands. And that is what is so frustrating, and you will pay the price.”
Riki Raani wrote these painful words in her diary, shortly after she found herself “imprisoned” once again by her husband, who has refused for 20 years to grant her a divorce, as well as by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, which released her from her marriage but then withdrew its decision in wake of relentless pressure.
Her “J’accuse,” which has thus far remained deep in her drawer, is addressed to all those who caused her harm, with the leading rabbinical judges from the Haredi world topping the list.
“I swore I would not cry”
On November 3, 2021, hundreds of Haredi WhatsApp groups in Israel were bombarded with a photocopy of an unusual, almost unprecedented letter, which revealed one of the most agonizing stories involving aginut – marital captivity – in Israel, which until then had been administered behind closed doors. In the letter, high-ranking dayanim – rabbinical judges – some of whom are members of the Great Rabbinical Court, attacked a precedent-setting ruling handed down a few months earlier by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court in the context of a special panel that released Raani from her marriage after almost 20 years of being an agunah, a “chained woman” whose husband refuses to grant her a get, a Jewish divorce.
“According to our holy Torah, this dispensation has no basis in halakha, and is as worthless as the dust of the earth. This woman is still fully married and is considered a married woman,” wrote the rabbinical judges. “The ruling is incorrect in halakhic terms and serves as a serious and dangerous precedent for future generations. We hereby call upon the members of the tribunal to withdraw this erroneous dispensation.”
The letter, together with considerable pressure behind the scenes, achieved the desired result. The dayanim of the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court withdrew their decision and once again jailed Raani in the prison of get refusal.
For Raani, that was the last straw. It was the point when she made two significant decisions: The first was to cut herself off from Haredi society, which she feels “betrayed” her. The second was to tell her story in public for the first time. Her realization that the rabbinical establishment had no real interest in helping her and the fact that she was still defined as a married woman by the Haredi world purely due to political considerations led her to tell herself loudly and clearly: “My voice must be heard.”
We met in the late afternoon hours in the offices of Yad La’isha, an organization established by Ohr Torah Stone to fight get refusal by providing legal representation for the women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce in a rabbinical court. Raani enters the building in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood through a side entrance that is locked with a code to prevent the entry of undesirable visitors.
“I swore I wouldn’t cry, that I wouldn’t give my husband that gift,” she tells us right at the start of the interview, and then reiterates this again and again, maintaining a broad smile even when carefully choosing her words. The truth is that it is difficult for us to keep from tears as we hear the story of a woman who has been imprisoned by her husband for so many years and finally released – only to be sentenced once again by the rabbinical judges to “life imprisonment” for now, without any likelihood of a pardon on the horizon.
Raani, 42, was born and raised in Bnei Brak as the oldest daughter of a typical Mizrahi Haredi family. “A family blessed with children,” she says without elaborating. After graduating from high school, she began working as an early childhood caregiver, her profession to this day. She is currently working in Elkana in Samaria, where she resides.
Her parents looked for a match for her, but it came only at the age of 22, which is considered “an advanced age” for a young Haredi woman. “In Haredi terms, I was an old maid, and I was looking for my soulmate,” she recalls. “When I met B in 2002, I fell in love at first sight. He was a very intelligent man, he knew how to talk, he looked as if his whole life was ahead of him. He worked at the time at the Diamond Exchange. He was no less than the man of my dreams.”
The couple moved to London where B lived. He was a member of one of the most extreme Hassidic sects, one that does not recognize the State of Israel. Raani was overjoyed to start her new life, but within a very short time, B began to show his true colors.
“It was the beginning of a relationship I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t let me work although we had agreed earlier that I would, he wouldn’t let me make friends, he isolated me, took away my passport and refused to let me learn English, so there was no one I could talk to even if I wanted to. No one around us knew anything. I didn’t tell my parents; I was too frightened.”
In the context of the legal proceedings before the rabbinical judges, Raani declared, among other things, that B had used extreme violence against her, culminating in shocking sexual violence.
“Just a few months were enough for me and I wanted to tell him that I was leaving, but then I discovered I was pregnant. I was unable to leave him after I found that out. I was simply too weak emotionally.
“There was nothing to eat in the house, and when I asked him to buy food, he refused. I had a neighbor who brought me soup and it was thanks to her that I had something to eat. It was not that he didn’t have money. He was simply abusing me.”
Raani suffered for nine and half months from B’s violence, until she decided to take action and flee. “We had a family event in Israel and I told him in no uncertain terms that either he would buy me a ticket or my parents would. He came together with me because he was certain that he would manage to take me back to London but when we arrived, I blew everything up and told him that I wouldn’t be returning.
“I was in my eighth month when I arrived at my parents’ home. That night was the first time I slept through the night since the wedding. When I told my parents what I had gone through, they were completely shocked. They didn’t quite know how to deal with it.”
She tried to keep the name of the hospital where she planned to give birth a secret at any price. “I went all alone to Maayanei Hayeshuah in Bnei Brak to give birth. I didn’t tell anyone besides my mother, but B managed somehow to find out where I was. Every time he entered the room where I was staying, my numbers climbed sky high, my blood pressure would spike. My condition was so poor that the doctors instructed him to leave for the sake of my health.”
Raani gave birth to a boy, and eight days later, the circumcision ceremony was held, also under threat of terror. “B organized the entire ceremony and informed my brothers that I had to come. I was afraid, worried that he would harm me, and I didn’t come. My brothers went with B and promised that they would watch over my son and bring him back to me. B named him, but I refused to accept that name. I gave him a different name, which I will not reveal in order to protect him.”
Raani began divorce proceedings even before the birth, but the rabbinical court refused to open a case file because of the pregnancy. “When my son was two weeks old, in November 2004, I opened a case file in the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva. That is where my struggle in the rabbinical court began, and it continues to this day. I will never forget the first time I told my story, which I have repeated untold times since. A few months ago, I had to tell it again after almost 20 years. It was a traumatic experience. I stood there and I almost fainted.”
“It is hard not to have expectations”
B absolutely refused to give her a divorce. “When I told him for the first time that I refused to continue my life with him the way he wanted, he said very plainly: ‘I will never give you a divorce in my lifetime.’ I immediately understood that I could not expect any cooperation from him; that he would do anything he could to make my life a living hell.”
B stalled and misled Raani for two years, until one day in 2006, she discovered from mutual friends that B had remarried and even had another child. Through her lawyer and with the help of public figures, Raani tried to exert intense pressure on B, even appealing to his rebbe, but to no avail. “The Haredi community in London was furious with him, the rabbinical court in the city issued a ban on him and a ruling to coerce a get, the rabbinical judges took steps that are better not discussed, but nothing helped and he refused to grant me a get.”
Four more years went by. She tried to rebuild her life as she continued to struggle to obtain a divorce and raise her son, and began to work as an early childhood caregiver. In 2010, with the help of the members of Itim, an association that provides assistance in various areas related to religion and state, she managed to bring B to court in London, England.
“I thought I’d reached a breakthrough. Even before I boarded the plane, I thought that the chances of obtaining a get were slim, but it was difficult not to have expectations. The flight was preceded by elaborate preparations. It was a very arduous journey to get to the court and face him, to speak the truth in his face and hear what he had to say. He conditioned the get on my giving up alimony for a very long time, we tied up all the loose ends, everything according to his demands. I was supposed to come just to for the sake of his honor – so that he would give me a divorce.”
However, in the court, B reneged on his agreement and once again resolutely refused to grant a get. “I stood facing him and he declared he would rather go to jail for life than give me a divorce. Those were intensely unsettling times. On my last day in London, I fainted several times. In the taxi, on the way to the airport, I looked back and wept. I couldn’t understand how I could be going back to Israel without a get. What was I supposed to tell everyone? My son was already seven years old and was aware of some of what was happening around us. I didn’t know how to comfort him.”
That hearing was the last time Raani saw B. Although efforts were made behind the scenes to apply further pressure to him, nothing helped. “I was summoned to see his rebbe, and B is considered beyond the pale over there, but nothing helped.
Do you have any idea why he is refusing to grant the divorce?
“I’ve been asked that question countless times and my answer is that I don’t know. Why didn’t Pharaoh free the Children of Israel from Egypt? The Almighty hardened his heart. There are things that only Elijah the Prophet can explain. I have a lot of questions, a lot of things that I don’t understand.”
“Living with a sense of persecution”
Raani arrived at Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center in 2018, after she had completely despaired of finding a solution.
“Nissim Abergil, my rabbinical advocate at the time, recommended I turn to them. I didn’t have the strength to appeal to any organization. It was difficult to convince me to take on anything that required more than my signature. I knew that I had a long and arduous journey ahead of me with meetings, repeating the terrible descriptions that once again cut into my flesh a million times over and over. They first had to restore my confidence that they could even do anything.”
The solution that Yad La’isha raised was groundbreaking: to ask the court to completely annul the kiddushin as part of a procedure known as a “mistaken transaction.” This is an unusual and relatively rare procedure in the context of which the rabbinical court annuls the marriage with the claim that the agreement was not executed properly. The meaning is that the woman goes back to being single, as if she had never married.
“At a certain point, we tried to find out who B was,” explains attorney Tehilla Cohen, the rabbinical court dvocate from Yad La’Isha who has been representing Raani for several years. “We realized that we were dealing with a man who lived with a sense of persecution, who was convinced that he was the victim and who was doing whatever he wanted to, a man with no boundaries. We understood that all the solutions had been exhausted and that it was impossible to move ahead on conventional channels.”
Cohen submitted an expert opinion to the court from a psychologist and a psychiatrist determining that B was not sane, and that if Raani had known about his condition before the wedding, she never would have married him. The proof lies in the fact that the moment she discovered who and what he really was – she refused to continue to live with him. “The more I learned and delved deeper into the factual circumstances and evidence presented to me, the more I believed with all my heart that Riki could be released according to Jewish law with the claim of a mistaken transaction,” she explains.
Due to the complexity of the case, Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Chief Rabbi and President of the Great Rabbinical Court, agreed to establish a special court panel in the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court to hear the case. Cohen: “We set out on the journey to find rabbinical judges who would agree to hear this idea, because it is clearly controversial and complex. It is an unconventional approach, although it does exist in Jewish law.”
Three rabbinical judges, Rabbi Yair Ben Menahem, Rabbi Daniel Edri and Rabbi Efraim Cohen, agreed to hear the case and in August 2021, their dramatic ruling was handed down. After almost 19 years, Raani was set free and allowed to marry anyone she wanted. She was now defined not as a divorcee but as a single woman. Due to the enormous volatility of the ruling, it was not made fully public or given to anyone, including Raani herself, who was given in writing only the bottom line – that she was free to marry.
“When I received the ruling, I felt on top of the world,” she says. “There was a moment in the hearing when they again asked all the difficult questions, and then I was told that I was free to marry. I have no words to describe it. It was as if I had been reborn. I was an unmarried woman for two euphoric months and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was crying with emotion the whole time. I started to dream.”
But then her whole world turned upside down.
Three months after her marriage was annulled, a very sharply worded letter made the rounds of the Haredi social media, signed by leading Haredi rabbinical judges in the past and present, who took exception with the Tel Aviv court’s decision and demanded that it be reversed. Among the signatories to the letter was the retired presiding rabbinical judge in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Nahum Prober.
“Suddenly, my brother sends me a WhatsApp message with a copy of the letter, asking if it was connected to me,” recalls Raani. “I looked at it and I was horrified. I said this can’t be happening. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that it had been made public. They made a huge deal of it, revealed all the details. It was shocking.”
“We hereby set forth our opinion, the view of the Torah, regarding the annulment of the kiddushin decided on in the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court established on the claim of a mistaken transaction,” wrote the dayanim, “based on a psychological opinion given many years after the marriage and on the basis of the wife’s claims and on the fact that the husband’s father was mentally ill. From this the psychologist concluded that the husband apparently also suffered from a personality and behavioral disorder. This psychological opinion, which is based on hypotheses and assessments that are completely unproven, cannot serve as the basis for a halakhic ruling of any kind, and it certainly cannot be relied upon in this most serious of all issues, the release of a married woman through annulment of the kiddushin.
Some of the rabbinical judges who attacked the dramatic judgment had been shown the ruling even though it was confidential, while others expressed their views without having seen all the details of the case. Even the London Rabbinical Court, the one that had banned B, attacked the ruling. The pressure had the desired effect and the three dayanim of the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court withdrew their ruling.
“My heart felt like glass shattering into a million pieces. They took my body and soul to the highest place in the world – and then hurled them down. I felt like a person with a terminal illness who was finally cured – only to have the illness return. I am still broken and shattered.”
Are you angry at the rabbinical judges who withdrew their ruling?
“They are good people upon whom a great deal of pressure was brought to bear. I am not angry. I feel betrayed by the system. I understand that there is no proper and right solution for agunot and women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce. They know where my husband is, they have heard him say that he will not grant me a get and then he laughed in their faces, but as far as the system is concerned, there’s nothing that can be done.”
Riki and Yad La’Isha harbor a strong suspicion that the reason for the opposition to the ruling stems from the fact that it is revolutionary in nature. This ultra-conservative position considers it preferable to leave Riki “chained” to her husband than to release her based on an innovative solution. “Any aguna’s story is tragic, but I have never encountered a situation in which a woman is set free and then returned to captivity. This is an untenable situation,” says Tehilla Cohen. “I am angry at those who attacked the ruling and dismissed it without having been present at the hearing, without hearing all the facts and evidence presented to the rabbinical court, without holding a proceeding as Jewish law demands.
“A basic principle in Jewish law is that no rabbinical court may nullify the ruling of another court. Another important principle is that a judge has only what his eyes see, and this applies both to a judge who was not present in the court, who did not hear or see the evidence and thus cannot rule on what his eyes did not see, as well as to the judges who were present in the court and ‘saw’ what was presented to them. They must not fear that they were mistaken.
“The entire purpose of the critics of the ruling is to intimidate anyone who dares to undertake an in-depth investigation and take steps to release a woman from her marital chains, and that is a reality that is difficult to swallow. I am disappointed that the rabbinical court as an institution did not come out with an unambiguous statement as soon as this grotesque drama began.
“I expected, without relating to the content of the matter, that there would be a clear and decisive statement that this was a legal proceeding held behind closed doors in accordance with all the rules of Jewish law, and that no public discussion of the matter should be allowed. The original decision could have implications for other cases involving agunot and women who have been refused a get should a similar case come before them. It should be emphasized that the rabbinical judges who signed the ruling did so after obtaining permission from illustrious and important rabbis.”
The president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, also had strong words for the highly irregular action taken by the critics of the ruling: “In this case, orchestrated pressure was applied that crossed all lines. If there as a halakhic problem or substantive argument against the ruling, it should have been discussed before the decision was handed down and officially given to the woman. But once a decision is made, it should not be followed by anything, certainly not by a public discussion that reveals all the confidential details of the case as part of an orchestrated and well-publicized campaign.”
It has been eight months since Raani’s dream was shattered, but she stands by her decision not to cry. “My motto is that no matter what happens, I will not let anyone wipe away my smile. Life is good, thank God, and I am grateful for every moment.
“When my son was born, I understood that I have a son and with him I will be the happiest in the world, no matter what. True, he doesn’t have a father, but he has a huge family with a lot of uncles and aunts, and a grandmother and grandfather who love him. What matters is how we live our lives. I have a treasure that the Almighty gave me. At least I have a son, I am privileged to have him and I am blissfully happy. There are so many women who want to have a child but do not.”
This interview was carried out with her son’s permission. He is 18 years old and studies in a Haredi yeshiva. “If he hadn’t consented, I would not have agreed under any circumstances. He accepts me the way I am, because he too is undergoing a process.
“There is a moment when a person has to speak up, talk, respond, look out for oneself. I had to make this story public, as the voice of other women who are experiencing violence and don’t dare to speak up. If I succeed in freeing just one woman from the cycle of violence, it will be enough for me. Every time there is a case involving the refusal to grant a get that reaches the headlines, or when a woman is murdered by her violent husband, I feel everything raging inside. I know that it could have also happened to me, I know what it means to be in the middle of this kind of situation. I want to scream to them: ‘Get out and run away. Save yourselves. Ask questions later.'”
Because the rabbinical court expressly ruled that she is not married and then withdrew its ruling – she considers herself a single woman. “I am not concerned by what the rabbinical judges say because I have already gotten my answer,” she says. “Let them stick the politics they are waging onto someone else’s back. For years, I did not speak to men, did not develop relationships. I was alone. I kept to myself because my faith persists. Everyone told me I was crazy not to date, but no one will take away my God from me.
Would you date someone now?
“Yes. I want a relationship. What hurts me the most is that I am alone, because my dream was to have a house full of children, a marriage, a career, a normal life. It is not a simple thing to ask of a man, to go out with a woman whom the establishment considers unavailable, but I hope I will find the right person for me, my soulmate, with whom I’ll be able to transcend politics and have a family.”
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Administration of the Rabbinical courts: “According to the ordinances pertaining to hearings, the hearings in the rabbinical courts are not final and if the court fears it may have erred in its ruling, it is entitled to amend it.”
No response was received from B.