Scandal of women trapped in marriages by Jewish courts

Author: By Jerome Taylor, Religious affairs correspondent

When Miriam Saleh decided her marriage to her husband was no longer working
she soon discovered that getting a divorce in Britain’s law courts would be
the least of her worries.

As a devout Orthodox Jew from a close-knit community in north London, the only
way she would really be free to get on with her life would be if her husband
granted her a get ? a Jewish divorce document authenticated by a rabbi and
given by a husband to his wife releasing her from their marriage.

Within Halakha (Jewish law) only the husband has the power to grant a get and
if he refuses his wife becomes an agunah, or chained wife. Trapped in a
marriage they cannot get out of, an agunah is often shunned by her
community, which forbids her from remarrying and reminds her that any
further children she has with anyone other than her husband would be
considered illegitimate.

“It’s an absolutely horrible feeling, knowing that you cannot meet anyone
else, that you remain utterly trapped in a marriage you are officially
divorced from but which your community refuses to accept,” said Mrs
Saleh, 38, one of very few Orthodox Jewish women willing to speak publicly
about her plight.

“All those years pleading for a get were like living in a black hole. My
husband was using Jewish law to get back at me, it was the only weapon he
had and I was powerless to do anything about it.”

No one knows how many British women are in a similar situation to Mrs Saleh
but campaigners say there are hundreds at least. They argue that it is high
time that Britain’s Beth Dins (Jewish religious courts) confronted the
hidden scandal of Judaism’s chained wives. In Beth Dins used by Reform Jews
? the less literal and more socially liberal wing of Judaism ? rabbis will
sometimes issue a get regardless of whether they have the husband’s
permission. But the Orthodox Beth Dins are far less willing to tackle
recalcitrant husbands.

A Channel 4 documentary to be aired on Sunday evening reveals how a separate
religious legal system operating outside of Britain’s civil laws is
rendering British women powerless to free themselves from a marriage they do
not want.

Susan Epstein, 57, spent years fighting her husband for a get and after five
years he eventually relented. But by then it was too late for her son who
had been born with her new partner and was therefore branded a mamzer, an
illegitimate child who would not be allowed to marry a fellow Orthodox Jew
when he grew up. She has since joined a Reform synagogue and feels painfully
rejected by the community she was born into.

“I felt like I was being turned away by the very people who were meant to
support us,” she said. “For years now, I and a few fellow
campaigners have been trying to get the Orthodox Beth Dins to look into the
issue but they are so reluctant to even touch the subject.”

In Israel, where the rabbinical courts deal with all divorces, there has been
some willingness in recent years to protect chained wives with so-called “rabbi
detectives” trained to find recalcitrant husbands who can even be
imprisoned if they refuse to release their wives. But in Britain, because
chained wives are supposedly legally divorced, there has been no attempt to
confront the problem.

People like Mrs Saleh, who eventually obtained a get from a Beth Din that her
ex-husband refuses to recognise, says reform must come from within Britain’s
Jewish community, not imposed from the outside. “There’s nothing
someone like I can do,” she said. “But I do think our rabbis need
to get their act together and do a much better job of confronting husbands
who refuse to give a get.”

Mrs Epstein agrees. “I don’t know how much more cruel really anything can
be, other than being stoned for being an adulteress. It’s an emotional
stoning rather than a physical one.”

Revelations: Divorce Jewish Style is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 7pm

Beth Dins: Jewish law in Britain

*Ever since the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that Islamic sharia
courts were an “unavoidable” phenomenon in Britain, there has been
a heated debate about the role of separate religious legal systems and
whether they should compliment British civil law. Jewish Beth Din courts
have in fact been operating in the UK for more than a century and are
frequently used ? particularly by the Orthodox community -? to solve civil
disputes. Under British civil law a third party can be used to resolve a
dispute as long as both sides agree to the arbitration. They cannot,
however, replace civil law. Critics say that because sharia and halakha
(Jewish law) uses religious texts to define their practice they are often
biased against women.

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