NEW YORK (Oct. 7)
It’s a "first wives club" that no member is able to escape.
In the past year, a dozen Orthodox men have been given special rabbinic permission to date and even remarry without divorcing their first wives, say advocates for "agunot," the women whose husbands refuse to free them.
A handful of rabbis in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have issued the special rabbinic permission — called a "heter" — permitting a man to get on with his life without granting the Jewish divorce she needs to get on with hers.
Many more husbands are threatening to obtain heters if their wives dare to ask for alimony or child support, said Susan Aranoff, a co-director of Agunah Inc.
Agunah Inc. is a Brooklyn-based volunteer group of three Orthodox women who advocate for women unable to obtain a "get," or religious divorce, which, according to Jewish law, can be issued only by the husband.
Until now, an Orthodox man has been able to keep his wife chained to a dead marriage — even if they were long living apart and civilly divorced — by refusing to give her a get.
And while that has prevented her from remarrying, it has prevented him from doing so as well. It was the one bit of leverage women had in such situations, said Aranoff.
Now even that bit of power is being taken away from the women, she said.
One woman paying the price for this new development is Liat Besterman.
Besterman is a modern Orthodox woman from Elizabeth, N.J., who just celebrated her 25th birthday.
Although her husband, Ariel Hacohen, promised a judge in civil court to give her a religious divorce, he has since refused.
He has also obtained permission from Rabbi Solomon Herbst of Queens, N.Y., to date other women without giving Besterman the get that she requires to be able to socialize, remarry and begin a family.
In a telephone interview, Besterman said that she left her husband about 18 months ago, after two years of what she describes as an emotionally abusive marriage.
Neither Hacohen nor Herbst returned repeated phone messages seeking interviews, but three other rabbis familiar with the case confirmed its details.
Besterman said her situation "feels like a nightmare," and that she feels like she is being held captive by Hacohen and Herbst during the best years of her life.
"I’m in `limboland,’" she said. "I’m not married and I’m not single, whereas this man is allowed to get on with his life."
"He’s telling his rabbi that he’s too depressed to give me the get, but he’s not too depressed to go out and date," she said.
This use of heter is a "rabbinic reaction to the empowerment of agunot," Aranoff said, referring to recent successful efforts to publicize the plight of women who are unable to obtain Jewish divorces.
It is part of the same backlash reaction as other recent developments, she said, citing as examples the phenomenon of "kedusha ketana," in which two Orthodox men married off their young daughters to spite their estranged wives, and the rumor that some Orthodox men have threatened to take concubines, or "pilgashot."
It is also "a backlash against women for going to civil court," she said.
Even fervently Orthodox women now frequently turn to civil courts to adjudicate custody arrangements and financial settlements because they do not get a fair hearing in religious courts, she said.
They often obtain civil divorces without getting the Jewish divorce that they really require in order to get on with their lives.
That threatens the power of the rabbis in charge of the religious courts, who want all divorce-related matters to be settled in religious courts, Aranoff said.
As a result, the rabbis, along with the husbands, are punishing the women by withholding their Jewish divorces, she said.
The only reason that a man would do such a thing is "revenge or spite," said Rabbi Ephraim Bryks, an Orthodox rabbi in Queens who opposes the practice.
"To me it sends the wrong message to the Jewish community, that men can close the book and heal, while women are left to suffer, and that’s wrong," said Bryks, who added that, as a judge in religious courts, he has mediated more than 3,000 divorces.
A leading Orthodox rabbi, Emanuel Rackman, said he is aware of a growing number of heters being given to men and that he is trying to form a new religious court to address such issues.
Rackman, who is chancellor of Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said he hopes to, under Jewish law, annul some marriages in which a wife is being held captive by her estranged husband and his rabbi, and free the woman to get on with her life.
The current use of heters is not the way that they have been traditionally employed.
When Rabbeinu Gershom, a 10th-century Talmudic scholar, banned bigamy and prohibited the divorce of a woman against her will, his rulings were accepted across the European Jewish world. They have continued to be accepted as the norm in almost the entire Jewish world.
Rabbeinu Gershom allowed two types of exemptions from his prohibitions, permitting men to remarry without divorcing their first wives, and set stringent conditions for their use.
In the first case, if the wife was incapacitated because she was in a coma or severely mentally ill, and unable to give her legal consent to a divorce, then a man could get a heter.
Obtaining one was designed to be difficult. The man had to obtain written permission from 100 different rabbis from three different countries who had to familiarize themselves with the case before granting their assent.
In addition, the man was required to continue to support his first wife by putting money for her care in escrow.
"He couldn’t abandon her," Bryks said. The heter has been employed from time to time, "but it wasn’t a license for men to get on with their lives at the expense of women’s rights."
Rabbeinu Gershom also allowed a second type of exemption, if a woman has had an affair and refuses to accept a divorce from her husband, or if the husband wants to move to Israel and the wife refuses, and also refuses to accept a divorce.
That type of heter, Bryks said, requires only the permission of a religious court, which is generally composed of three rabbis. This type of heter is much more common, he said, nothing that he has used it on numerous occasions.
This new type of heter is apparently based on neither set of circumstances permitted by Rabbeinu Gershom, said Bryks.