On the eve of Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther), OTS’s Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline partnered with the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for a riveting symposium and film event marking International Aguna Day 2015.
The commemoration of Aguna Day – the day each year on which we consciously remember the thousands of women who are chained to abusive or loveless marriages – was assigned to Ta’anit Esther because like today’s agunot, Esther was also trapped in a marriage she did not want to be in, albeit for a different reason. Like women being denied a get, Esther too lacked control of her freedom and lived a life of fear and loneliness.
For the female rabbinical court advocates staffing Yad L’isha, every day is Aguna Day; the event at the cinematheque was an opportunity for them and other well-known personalities to increase awareness amongst the general Israeli public of the aguna‘s plight. Nearly 400 attendees sat arm-to-arm in the theater for a special screening of the movie “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem,” which was preceded by a program offering a glimpse into the aguna’s predicament and possible solutions.
“Better for the altar to shed tears”
The evening was opened by Rabbi David Stav, the new Co-Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone. “The Torah does not want women to be held captive,” he declared. “Women have the right to end their marriage. It’s better for the altar to shed tears than for the woman and her children to cry.”
Rabbi Stav said that while we aspire to homes built on love and trust, when it doesn’t work, the man is not entitled to hold his wife hostage. “It’s important that someone save the oppressed from the hands of her abuser, that someone give a voice to the woman who is silenced,” he said. “This is the role of the religious courts, and most often it does its job. But in those instances in which it does not, organizations like Yad L’isha work to rescue them. In doing so, they are sanctifying God’s name,” he asserted.
“We are all potential agunot“
Stav’s remarks were followed by a panel discussion entitled “The Ties that Bind: Between Film and Reality.” Moderated by Professor Yedidia Stern of the Israeli Democracy Institute, the panel featured MK Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid); MK Michal Rozin (Meretz); Professor Adv. Dov Frimer; Religious Court Justice Rabbi Yair Ben Menachem; and rabbinical court advocate and civil attorney Vardit Rosenbloom, of Yad L’isha’s Tel Aviv office.
“We are all potential agunot,” said Dr. Lavie, Chair of the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of Women. Lavie lauded the efforts of Rabbi Stav in his capacity as Chairman of the Tzohar rabbinic organization for his recent partnership with the Israel Bar Association in promoting prenuptial agreements which will prevent husbands from withholding a get. “But we also need to operate on other levels,” she maintained. “The system has to be clean and honest, the judges should receive appropriate training, and we must prevent this bureaucracy where women become no more than a faceless number.”
“We will not allow a get in exchange for payment”
While acknowledging that answers must be found, Professor Frimer did not believe in looking for them in the law. Instead, he said, the situation would improve with the installation of more presiding judges who “grew up in Israel, served in the army, and studied in Israeli yeshivot,” he said. “Rulings are related to the background and view of the judges, which makes the responsibility of the committee for appointing them even greater.”
MK Rosin, on the other hand, favored legal solutions, specifically the introduction of civil marriage for Israel, “which is a Democratic state. Civil marriage and divorce will solve a lot of the extortion and a greater number of cases will be resolved,” she argued. “It’s not enough to swap the type of kipa on the rabbinical judges’ heads.”
The responsibility of the courts themselves to help solve the problem was addressed by Rabbi Ben-Menachem, a judge in the Netanya Regional Religious Court. “The courts must ensure that a woman will never have to succumb to extortion,” he asserted. “We will not allow a get in exchange for payment. Together with you we will continue to foment change,” he said.
“All we seek is justice”
“Aginut is a phenomenon which transcends socioeconomic sectors and religious affiliations,” said Yad L’isha Director Osnat Sharon, commenting on an emotional ceremony in which several of the recently-freed Yad L’isha were called onstage to receive a flower from the advocate who represented them in court. “Some of the most difficult cases arrive at Yad L’isha, and we treat each woman as if she is our only client,” she remarked.
“Solutions within halacha can be found in most of the cases. But for that we need brave judges with vision and a desire to do the right thing. We are not here to wage war or to grab headlines, and we are certainly not against the sanctity of marriage,” she said. “All we seek is justice.”