Unchain My Heart: On the Emotional Effectiveness—and Lingering Sexism—of Jewish Divorce

Sari Botton explores the dark side of a tradition that has for millennia subverted women’s rights.

Sari Botton | Longreads | May 2016 | 21 minutes (5,211 words)

Initially, the twenty-story Manhattan office building threw me off. I had in my hand the address for a beth din, a rabbinic court, and had pictured a cluttered rabbi’s study in some old world synagogue—like the one in the divorce scene in Hester Street, the 1975 film about a Jewish immigrant couple at the turn of the twentieth century, starring a very young Carol Kane.

I rode the elevator up to find my ex-husband on a couch in the reception area—yes, this was the place—and settled in a full cushion’s distance from the person I’d once revolved my life around, the man whom I’d walked in seven symbolic circles around during our wedding ceremony, seven years before.

* * *

We’d been split up a full four years when my ex-husband called out of the blue and asked, too casually, “So…do you want a get?” As if we spoke regularly. As if he were asking, “So…do you want me to pick up a pizza on my way home?”

“Do I want a what?”

“You know,” he said. “A Jewish divorce.”

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know what he was talking about; it was that I didn’t know why. What was the point? In the eyes of New York State we were already as divorced as two people could be. For a long time. I didn’t need to consult with any higher authority.

* * *

My get, or Orthodox Jewish divorce, took place in the fall of 1996. For going on two decades it’s held its place among my top ten personal anecdotes. It’s a funny, sort of heartwarming bit about how I inadvertently derived peace-of-mind and closure from a ritualistic tradition I would never have considered on my own, and had in fact resisted; about how two people, who’d split bitterly back when they were too young for anything resembling “conscious uncoupling,” finally got to tie up loose ends with a modicum of grace.

But there are also some less heartwarming aspects of the story. I used to leave those out. I’m not doing that anymore.

In the past few years, it’s become difficult to continue suppressing those elements. In some part, that has to do with my own belated, gradual awakenings, as I’ve pulled further away from the religion (and the suburban monoculture I grew up in), and grown more attuned to the ills of patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, and inequality of all stripes. Pushing me further in that direction has been a recent news story I’ve followed about some Hasidic rabbis in New York and New Jersey. From 2009 to 2013, they were part of a divorce coercion crime ring that was preying on women whose husbands refused to grant them a get, which is required for remarriage in the Orthodox community. The rabbis were convicted of kidnapping and torturing the men—a not-so-subtle means of persuading the husbands to change their minds, since the Torah doesn’t require them to provide that crucial document—and charging the wives as much as $70,000 to carry out the suffocation and other forms of abuse (cattle prodding was also alleged).

That story, while clearly far outside my experience as a secular Jew, cast a harsh light on Jewish laws regarding women’s rights and divorce. It also brought to mind those less heartwarming parts of my own get story, the parts that I used to skip past. Connecting those dots has ignited a long-suppressed rage, and marred what I’d long ago mentally edited into an endearing, benign memory.

* * *

My get ceremony itself took place inside a beth (pronounced bait, sometimes spelled beit) din, an interior room in that twenty-story New York City high rise, which my mind struggles to categorize: The walls are lined with leather-bound law books, some with Hebrew lettering along their spines. An open mahogany ark displays three or four silver-encased Torah scrolls. In front of it stands a low, semi-circular sort of judges’ bench, behind which sit five Hasidic rebbes in standard issue Office Depot swivel chairs. Law office? Court room? Sanctuary? All of the above.

After I’m invited to sit, the whole surreal production begins. First, each of the five rebbes interrogates us with the exact same questions: What is your name? Are there any other names that you go by? Are you choosing to divorce of your own free will? Are you pregnant? Next guy: What is your name? Are there any other names that you go by?… and so on, down the line.

They ask to speak to the person who officiated at our wedding. That happens to be my father. One of the rebbes dials my dad. Before asking anything about our wedding or marriage, he takes a moment, on speakerphone, to give my dad shit about not being religious enough.

This is totally mortifying. It’s also sort of satisfying.

* * *

I should back up here and explain a few things. Not only am I a secular Jew, I’m secular with a vengeance. That’s colored by a complicated relationship I have with religion, Judaism in particular—a relationship that gets progressively more difficult as I continue to belatedly “awaken”—because I’m the daughter of a clergyman.

Actually, that barely scratches the surface. More specifically and to the point: I am the religion-rejecting, Good-Girl-turned-“rebel,” black-sheep daughter of a cantor (think singing rabbi) in the watered-down Reform tradition…a man I love, but from whom I’ve been largely estranged for the past three years. (Oy.)

The conflicts behind that estrangement are the central conflicts of my life. They have consumed more psychotherapy hours than any other issues I’ve dealt with in my 50 years, and I will probably go to my grave still struggling with them.

They are many and varied, and too personal to go into here, but I’ll say this much about the conflicts relevant to my shifting perspective on my get: they are anchored to issues I have with a patriarchal belief system and tradition that’s been imposed on me—and with more of an emphasis on the patriarchy than on the beliefs and traditions.

My very own familial patriarch is professionally bound to that belief system, one that sanctions the diminishment of my power and self-determination, and to a culture that judges me—a parent-fearing Good Girl to the core no matter how many tattoos I get (I’m at two and holding)—as bad, or wrong, for the majority of my choices. Divorcing my Jewish husband (and being the one to initiate the proceedings). Marrying a non-Jew the second time around. Not having kids. Aborting the two accidentally conceived out of wedlock. Never going to synagogue or otherwise practicing Judaism. Choosing not to have one steady job. Committing the sin of lashon ha-ra by writing about my family. I’m a walking list of transgressions.

The religion/virtue connection trips me up because as a woman born in the sixties to parents who weren’t even vaguely counterculture, I’ve been conditioned to want to be recognized as  “good” by men in positions of authority, and to not question that authority. That’s always led me toward false niceness and agreeability, away from recognizing my real desires, and forming my own true opinions about, well, most things. It’s made it hard to keep it straight in my head that by my own definitions I am good. I strive to be an upstanding citizen—as simultaneously honest and kind as I can be; true to my word; hard-working; generous and loving toward the people who are generous and loving toward me. I do the best I can.

It hasn’t been easy for me to voice my arguments with Judaism, my choice to stand apart from it other than culturally, my identifying instead as an agnostic ethical humanist. Once I did, my father dismissed those positions as protracted adolescent rebellion, while also interpreting them as personal rejection and mortal insult. That has made me feel deeply sorry for him…and guilty…and angry, too. I get stuck in that vortex of conflicting, competing emotions and it shuts me down. In order to be a functional human being in the world, I need to keep a healthy distance.

Being anywhere near a synagogue instantly lands me back in that vortex, which is why, other than a few random family bar mitzvahs and weddings, I haven’t been to a service inside of one in maybe fifteen years.

* * *

I began questioning everything when I was 11, as one might after being forced to break up with the perfectly nice, cute, Puerto Rican boy in her sixth grade class who she was “going out with,” because he wasn’t Jewish. From then on, I continued to be skeptical and to have difficulty reconciling religious strictures and attitudes in Jewish-American culture that struck me as divisive—racist, sexist, classist—and hypocritical. For a long time, though, I didn’t strike out in any real way—other than announcing at 15, in the car on the way to Hebrew school, that, Oh, by the way, I’m not Jewish anymore. (Okay, maybe that qualifies as adolescent rebellion. But I was an adolescent then. At that age, it was practically my job as a clergy-kid to rebel.) After that, I resumed clinging to the role of good, dutiful daughter.

At 23, I added the role of good, dutiful suburban wife, the kind who goes with her husband to Friday night services, and there, like an automaton, joins the rest of the congregation in reciting the “responsive reading” in the prayer book, even though the words don’t resonate for her—especially the references to being “chosen.” It is our duty to praise the Lord of all things, who who separated us from the nations of the world and has given us responsibility unlike the other families of the earth. I never believed those words. I never liked those words. I said those words.

At our wedding, despite our both being Reform Jews, I willingly incorporated two Orthodox rituals I would never consider now: A bedeken, in which, before the wedding ceremony, my groom had to come unveil me (which means I first put a veil over my face) to make sure I was the right bride. This hearkens back to when the biblical Rachel’s father had pulled a fast one on Jacob and tricked him into marrying his less attractive daughter, Leah, first. And, under the chuppah, I walked around my groom in seven circles, symbolizing among other things that I was placing him at the center of my universe, all seven days of every week.

I look back and think, who was I? I was so deeply defined by my relationships to those two men, my father and my first husband, that I had little idea who I was outside of the roles of daughter and wife.

That is, until August of 1992 when, at almost 27, a series of events in my life woke me up, and I ended my three-year, fairly retrograde “starter marriage” to my college boyfriend. It was as if a new, 2.0 version of me was born—a more youthful, less stodgy urban version that strived, sometimes rather clumsily, to be independent, feminist, and, well, badass.

* * *

So, there I am four years later, at 31, in a room filled with Hasidic men and my ex-husband. I’m fresh off my first yom kippur—the fasting day of atonement and holiest day of the year—outside of a synagogue. (I spent it instead in the “sanctuary of the woods,” as I told my father, hiking and camping with my first non-Jewish boyfriend, an unreachable outdoorsy type ripped straight from the pages of Cowboys Are My Weakness.) I’m wearing the longest skirt I own, which still falls in the verboten zone above the knee, and opaque cotton tights that I’ve rationalized qualify as “modest” leg coverings. Underneath I’m sporting my newly minted navel ring, a near requisite among young East Village dwellers in the ‘90s who’d moved there to reinvent themselves.

“What’s a nice cantor like you doing at a Reform shul?” the head rabbi chides my father over speaker phone. He doesn’t seem to be joking.

The surreality of this scene never lets up. Arguably, it could be a hypnotic dream.

After they get whatever information they need from my dad, the rebbes hang up and begin ordering us around in clipped tones, without offering explanations for any of their commands—Go wait outside. Come back in. Bow your heads. While we bow our heads, they daven, chanting in Hebrew as they rock back and forth on their feet.

Finally, they instruct us in the OCD-tinged ways of handling the divorce decree they’ve drawn up for us in Hebrew: I’m told to hold my hands out—flat, not cupped!—and allow my ex-husband to lay the document upon them—You must not reach for it! From there, I’m directed to tuck the document under my left arm, walk to the door, tap the door, then make a u-turn back and return it to the table. Finally, one of the rebbes slashes the paper with a knife, and declares, “You are divorced!”

That brings us to the sweet redemption part of the story, where I stop internally rolling my eyes long enough to notice that something miraculous has happened. I feel different now. I feel free in a way I haven’t since I packed my bags and moved out of the home my ex and I shared, four years earlier. I realize I’ve received a great gift, and I’m filled with gratitude for it.

* * *

Sweet, right? Here’s a part that might make it seem less so.

Let’s go back to the prologue, when my ex-husband calls and suggests we pursue a legal/religious procedure that to me seems redundant and unnecessary. I politely decline, figuring that will be the end of that—although I’m not entirely sure, because this whole proposition seems fishy.

“But you’re the one who needs it,” he shoots back, his tone no longer so friendly.

“What?” I beg. “Why?”

He explains that a divorced Jewish woman needs this special decree drawn up by Orthodox rabbis if she wants to remarry someone religious enough to care, and to have kids who are considered Jewish—who can in turn marry other Jews when they grow up, and move to Israel with them if they want.

“Yeah, I don’t really see that being an issue,” I shoot back. I suspect then that the chance I might marry someone religious, or even Jewish, (or remarry at all) is slim to none, and my suspicion is right. Nine years later I’ll get remarried to Brian, an Irish and Italian self-described “recovering Catholic.”

My ex questions my judgment. (What is the Hebrew word for “mansplaining”?) And when that doesn’t work, he points out that according to Jewish law, or halacha, it is his prerogative as a man to decide whether or not to grant me a get. I should take him up on the offer because he doesn’t have to, but he is willing to do this just for me. Which is why, he argues from there, I should be the one to pay the ($800) bill.

I’m flabbergasted.

“No, thank you,” I say firmly. “I don’t need it.”

He offers to split the bill.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, but, no.”

That’s when he comes clean: He’s engaged, and his fiancé has insisted on the get as assurance that he’s truly ready to move on.

I feel sorry for him. I realize I have nothing to lose, and agree to take part—as long as he pays. Or she does.

* * *

I sort of knew this at the time, but it became eminently more clear to me after reading about the extorting, torturing rabbis: What my ex-husband said was true. Jewish law leaves it entirely up to men’s discretion whether to divorce, and only they can initiate proceedings. That rule was reflected in our ceremony—the bit about putting my hands out, flat, not cupped!, letting him place the decree on my hands without me reaching for it. That element of the ritual signifies that the husband is giving the get of his own free will; that it has been his decision. His wife is not taking it from him so much as she’s accepting it. Yuck.

When I tell certain people I have major issues with religion and Judaism, they immediately defend it, citing a certain beauty in its long-held traditions handed down from generation to generation. But the perpetuation of ancient traditions isn’t always beautiful or quaint, particularly when those traditions reinforce longstanding imbalances in power. Obviously, I’m suggesting this applies to Jewish divorce and the laws governing it, laws established quite some time ago—ostensibly by God, by way of Moses, in the Old Testament of the bible, aka the Torah. (See: Deuteronomy, 24: 1-4.)

Those laws had very little bearing on my non-religious life. But there are women in Orthodox communities who would like to end their marriages and move on with their lives, and can’t because their husbands exercise their supposed “God-given” right to refuse. The Hebrew term for such a woman is agunah, or “chained woman.” The plight of agunot (the plural form of the term) is the subject of “Women Unchained,” a 2011 documentary directed by Beverly Siegel and narrated by Mayim Bialik–which includes an interview with Rabbi Mendel Epstein, one of the rabbis convicted and imprisoned for extorting agunot and torturing their husbands.  It follows the stories of several modern-day women whose husbands have refused gets, and shows the hardships they and their children suffer for it.

They’re serious hardships. Agunot become outcasts in their communities. They can’t remarry and have their new marriages recognized by Jewish law. Their kids from future unrecognized marriages are labeled momzers, or bastards. If those children want to move to Israel, they are denied right of return unless they’re willing to submit to DNA testing to prove they’re of Jewish parentage. If those children want to marry in the Orthodox tradition, they can’t.

I had no idea that this was a current, often devastating issue before I began following the utterly insane story about the get coercion ring. When the story caught my attention, immediately my ex-husband’s argument of persuasion began to echo in my head—his “generous” offer to grant me a get, his contention that I should foot the bill because he didn’t have to. It hit me then that the bit of Jewish law he’d cited wasn’t only accurate; for some, it was still critically relevant and enforceable, and punishing.

What’s more, even in places where the law was no longer observed—among Reform Jews like us, for example—it had a lingering effect on power dynamics between men and women. It gave my not-especially-observant ex-husband the chutzpah to resort to a Torah-sanctioned power play. It gave him the impression that he was in a position of judgment, that he had more power than I did. And according to Jewish law, he did. God said so. He whispered it into his proxy Moses’s ear, thousands of years ago.

* * *

The case of the extorting, torturing rabbis is an extreme example of how Jewish law can leave agunot powerless and easily taken advantage of. But, I’ve learned, it’s hardly the only case.

“This is something that’s happening in every major Jewish community,” Rabbi Jeremy Stern, Executive Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York City-based nonprofit, told me. “It’s much more of an issue now than it was even fifty years ago, because divorce rates are higher. More divorces means more contentious divorces, and more recalcitrant husbands.”

Stern and ORA don’t take get refusal at all lightly. “We frame it as a form of domestic abuse,” he said. “It’s usually part of a system of control, and financial and psychological manipulation. It’s often the last form of abuse after a long history of it.”

He pointed out that while a man can argue against a wife’s divorce request in a beth din, if the court decides in her favor, he’s compelled to comply. “The Torah does not condone a man’s refusal to issue a get once a get is required.”

But not condoning isn’t the same as condemning. And there is no specified penalty for not complying. That lack of specificity in the law would seem to explain why rabbis might resort to vigilantism in enforcing it. It also bears noting that if a woman resists divorcing, all her husband needs is 100 signatures of men in the community supporting him in order to remarry.

Since its establishment in 2002, Stern’s organization has resolved 260 get disputes, never with violence, nor even the threat of it. However, he explained, violence in these matters is not a new thing.

“Years ago, in the shtetls of Europe, Jewish communities were able to inflict corporal punishment on men who wouldn’t grant their wives gets,” he said. “First the man would be ostracized. No one would do business with him. That was devastating. You had these small, cohesive communities, and that was really effective. If that didn’t work, a man could be beaten up by the rabbinic court. You break one leg, and before you break the second, he’s willing to comply.”

ORA’s approach is much more civil, but also sometimes comes down to ostracism. “We’ll start by taking the husband out for pizza or something,” Stern said. “We’ll tell him we sincerely want to resolve the case amicably.” If that doesn’t work, “we organize social pressure. We’ll speak with his family and friends and tell them. We’ll tell the people in his synagogue. We’ll stage a boycott of his business. If he has a religious employer, we’ll inform that employer.” Sometimes, they’ll organize a peaceful demonstration or rally outside his home or place of business.

ORA also tries to prevent get disputes by suggesting couples procure halachic prenuptial agreements, which dictate what will happen when one or both parties want to end the marriage. But pre-nups and pressure merely go around the problem.

“A pre-nup is a Band-Aid,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Executive Director of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), which has many resources for agunot.  “We support the halachic pre-nup. My educated guess is that it helps in 90 percent of cases. But I don’t think it’s a solution.”

Weiss-Greenberg told me the problem with Jewish divorce begins with a problem in Jewish marriage. “Marriage has a power imbalance,” she told me. “An Orthodox wedding ceremony involves the husband acquiring the wife. It’s a business transaction. There’s an inherent inequality in it.” She’s referring specifically to the kiddushin part of the ceremony, during which, “the wife is generally ‘acquired’ when the ring is placed on her finger.”

In an April 17, 2014 article in The Atlantic about reinterpreting Jewish matrimonial law for feminists and couples in the LBGTQ community, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes: “There are myriad interpretations of any Jewish text, and many people argue that during the betrothal ceremony—known as kiddushin, nowadays part of the wedding itself—the groom is only acquiring his obligations to the bride, not the actual woman. But I, and plenty of scholars along with me, think that’s a pretty hard sell. The original second-century text draws parallels between the acquisition of a woman through marriage to the acquisition of slaves, animals, property, and land. And even understood in the most optimistic possible way, kiddushin is still a gendered ceremony with a heavy power dynamic that favors the husband.”

“The original second-century text…” That’s right, Jewish law is still rooted in the bible, a book of parables written thousands of years ago, allegedly by a male, patriarchal deity. Like any ancient scripture, it can be interpreted any number of ways. Observant feminist activists are pushing for interpretations that give women more power at the altar and at the beth din. That often means finding loopholes in the law.

“There are many loopholes,” said JOFA’s Weiss-Greenberg. “For example, you might find something wrong with one of the witnesses to the marriage, which would allow you to annul it. Some rabbinic courts are more or less likely to use loopholes.” She added that many are more inclined to use them for men’s interests than for women’s. JOFA suggests women hold the rabbinic courts accountable for these tendencies by posting online on the International Beit Din site about their experiences with each one.

In 2013, JOFA held a summit on the agunah problem at NYU. In a keynote address, attorney and author Alan Dershowitz addressed the selective use of loopholes and certain interpretations of Jewish law as they apply to divorce.

“It is immoral to keep a woman chained to a broken marriage, forbid her to remarry a man she loves, and if she does, creating a negative status, putting them into invidious situations,” he said. “This immoral situation has been brought about by halachic interpretations. These halachic interpretations were made by men, with little or no input by women in our society.”

He goes on to point out other laws for which rabbis have had no problem applying loopholes and interpreting the law to their liking: moving past the concept of an-eye-for-an-eye; allowing for the use of special elevators on the Sabbath; allowing for travel by boat on the Sabbath during the Holocaust.

“Jewish halacha has always adapted to new realities,” Dershowitz told me in an email. “It must now recognize complete equality between men and women in the context of divorce if it seeks to maintain legitimacy among people who cannot believe that their God intended women to remain chained in bondage.”

* * *

After our get ceremony, my ex asked me if I wanted to have lunch, and I agreed. Why not, I thought. I was buzzing with appreciation for how surprisingly good the experience had been for me.

When we were done eating, he got uncharacteristically quiet. I watched his face contort as he had a little internal conversation with himself and I figured, This is not going to be good.

Finally, he shrugged talmudically and then spoke. “I forgive you,” he said.

Oh, great. Just what I didn’t need: unsolicited forgiveness. Verbalized unsolicited forgiveness. I’m sorry, but, silently, inside your head, knock yourself out—play Oprah and absolve anyone you like of whatever you think they’ve done to you. But keep it to yourself, because verbalized unsolicited forgiveness isn’t forgiveness at all.  It’s an accusation. It’s staking a claim to both the moral high ground and the moral authority. Gee, I wonder where my ex would get the idea that he was in a position of authority…

“Oh, yeah, buddy? Well, I forgive you. How’s that feel?”

I didn’t actually say that, though. In my early thirties I hadn’t yet developed enough of a backbone, wasn’t yet confident enough in my convictions, to say anything even in the vicinity of that.

Also, I didn’t want to ruin what had so far been a surprisingly good day. So I held my tongue. After lunch, I walked outside into a bright, new day, thanked my ex, and restarted my life with what felt like a fresh, clean slate. But those three little hostile words–I forgive you— stuck with me, and have continued to piss me off ever since.

For the record, we’d both messed up in our marriage. We were young and stupid. I had no idea who I was when I promised myself to him. Toward the end, he’d spent four or five unaccounted-for hours with a flight attendant, and I’d gotten back at him by spending four or five unaccounted-for hours being consoled—horizontally—by a guy friend. We were even.

* * *

While some of what I’ve come to learn about Jewish divorce law  has soured me on my get experience, it hasn’t done so entirely. I’m still cognizant of the significant effect the ceremony had on me, and of its value. When we’d split at 27 and 28, my ex-husband and I didn’t have the tools or the grace to acknowledge in any meaningful way that our three-year marriage, our eight-year relationship, was ending. We were too immature, too worked up, too wounded. A conversation that had begun with me asking for just a little time apart had ended with him ramming his hand through a wall, and me leaving our apartment forever.

Four years later, with all that drama behind us, I found something mysteriously clarifying about standing together before a bunch of hardcore religious rebbes and ritually untying the knot we’d once so hopefully tied under a chuppah in the summer of 1989—going back the other way through the eye of the needle.

That speaks to a personal contradiction I have a hard time owning: for all my rejection of religion, I am still deeply moved by ritual, ceremony, and symbolism. It’s easier for me to embrace those of other origins, whether it’s dangling from my neck a gold charm in the shape of Ganesh, the Hindu god of removing obstacles, or chanting “Om” at the beginning and end of yoga class, or invoking the Law of Attraction at an annual “vision boarding” gathering inspired by The Secret. I have  no baggage attached to those, other than of the Jewish guilt variety omnipresent in my brain, demanding, Well, if you’re willing to believe in theirs, why can’t you believe in ours? I understand how, especially in times of uncertainty and powerlessness, it can be appealing to have a set of simple steps to follow, which promise to guide you out. I know that something very real can happen, at least internally, when you take part in a well-worn tradition. There’s something psychologically powerful in hitching your intentions to those of others who came before you, in the exact same manner they did.

In her Atlantic article, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg calls this “ritual alchemy.” “For those who believe, as I do, that rituals do things, there’s a certain alchemy to the fact that a dunk in the ritual bath can transform a non-Jew into a Jew, that lighting two candles can, palpably and viscerally, bring in the Sabbath.”

But what if you want to retain the ritual, yet lose the parts that are sexist, or otherwise problematic? Would the get ceremony have had any less profound an effect on me if, say, I had insisted on being allowed to cup my hands, or to reach them upward and grab the divorce decree? If instead of one document in his favor, there had been two of equal import, and we each were to hand one to the other? I’m inclined to think not.

But in Ruttenberg’s opinion, something gets lost in translation when we take too many liberties in adjusting ancient rituals to our liking. “There’s a certain danger to mucking around with the source code, with the ways in which a religious tradition has been refined over hundreds or even thousands of years to bring us as close as possible to the sacred,” she writes. “Taking ritual alchemy seriously means that it might not work to slap any old thing together in place of these ancient mechanisms for binding two people to each other.” I suppose that might also apply to the mechanisms for breaking the ties that bind.

* * *

Editor: Mark Armstrong: Fact-checker: Matthew Giles