JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 13 (JTA) — Jewish leaders here have hailed an amendment to South Africa’s divorce law that links civil and religious divorces. As a result of the amendment enacted late last year, the country’s courts may now refuse to grant a civil divorce until the necessary steps have been taken to obtain a religious divorce. In the past, when the two divorces were not linked, there were often abuses within the Jewish community, such as when a husband would refuse to grant his wife a religious divorce, or “get,” but would be able to obtain a civil divorce. Under these circumstances, wives remain “agunot,” Hebrew for “chained,” unable to remarry under Jewish law. Now the parties to a divorce, particularly women, will be free to rebuild their lives. But because the amendment is not retroactive and will only apply to future divorces, the plight of existing “agunot” is not affected by the new legislation. South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who was an active proponent of the amendment, applauded the new law, saying, “Our unique South African democracy again comes to the rescue. “So many legal experts in other countries have dismissed the problem as one belonging solely to the religious community and not the law of the land.” Rabbi Rafael Grossman, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, hailed Harris’ work in promoting the amendment. He said he had forwarded a copy of the amendment to American legal experts to see whether it was possible to enact similar legislation in the United States. The amendment to the South African Divorce Act appeared to have wide backing among the country’s legal profession. The president of the Association of Family Lawyers in South Africa, Billy Gundelfinger, termed the amendment “a magnificent piece of social legislation which eliminates the possibility of unscrupulous people making unconscionable demands.” “There is now a mechanism to compel an uncooperative party to undergo a religious divorce.” Gail Goldberg, national vice president of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa, said her group had been “involved in efforts to improve the lot of women who have been refused a get by their husbands.” “The UJW therefore applauds the linking of the get to the civil divorce in South Africa as this will vastly improve the situation of many such women.”
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