NEW YORK, Jan. 8 (JTA) – In what some say is a historic breakthrough for Orthodox women unable to divorce, several prominent Orthodox rabbis have endorsed standards for rabbinic courts.
The standards would require that a get, or Jewish divorce, be the first step in divorce proceedings. The recommendations are expected to make it easier for Orthodox women to navigate what many say is a labyrinthine system that favors men.
The standards are endorsed by the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, organizations that represent centrist Orthodox congregants and rabbis. They also have the endorsement of more than 10 prominent rabbis who serve on or represent rabbinic courts in the United States.
Jews who live according to halachah, or Jewish law, require a get to dissolve their marriages. Only a man can give a get, and some withhold them to extort financial or custody settlements from their wives.
Women denied gets are forbidden from remarrying or even dating, and are called agunot, which means “chained women.” Some are trying to escape abusive relationships.
The new standards, particularly the assurance that a get be provided before other divorce arrangements are made, will “clear up a very large percentage of the agunah problem,” said Mattie Klein, director of L’Maan B’nos Yisrael International, a Brooklyn organization for agunot.
Klein’s organization worked closely with the rabbis who drafted the standards. It is not clear how many women in the United States are agunot, or who settle for unfavorable divorce agreements in order to extract a get, but some estimate the number is in the thousands.
While there are a number of established rabbinic courts in the United States, Jewish law says that any three Orthodox rabbis can convene a rabbinic court. Because these courts are not subject to oversight, many people have complained they are corrupt or favor husbands.
Before the standards, each court could “charge whatever they want, do whatever they want and there was no formal procedure of any kind, no recourse,” Klein said.
“Now we’re saying if you belong to the RCA or O.U. movement, we expect you to send your congregants to a Beis Din that abides by these standards,” Klein said, using the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew term for a rabbinical court.
“If they’re not willing, we advise her to call us and we will give her information as to how to proceed,” she continued.
Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the RCA, said the standards should help make the rabbinic courts “user-friendly and appropriate.”
The standards will “eliminate some of the alleged abuses,” Dworken said.
Other advocates for agunot are applauding the standards, although they say more must be done.
Susan Aranoff, a director at the Brooklyn-based Agunah Inc., said, “A Beit Din that adhered to those guidelines would be significant progress.”
However, Aranoff said, still unclear is whether anyone will enforce the standards and whether the courts will require that all divorce proceedings occur in rabbinical court rather than civil court. Women generally receive more favorable settlements in civil courts, Aranoff said.
The standards also will not solve the “most hard-core agunah cases,” Aranoff said, noting that some recalcitrant husbands may refuse to go to a Beit Din that abides by the standards.
“I think ultimately the rabbis are going to have to recognize that when men are scoundrels and abusers, they’re going to have to have the courage to free women without a get,” she said.
Rivka Haut, of the Brooklyn-based Get Organization, called the standards a “wonderful step forward.”
“It’s not a solution to the agunah problem, but it will help a lot,” Haut said.
“This is the first attempt at some sort of monitoring from the system itself. It’s not community monitoring, which I think would be better, but at least it’s rabbinic standard setting, and that’s been sorely lacking,” Haut said.
Haut would like to see community boards consisting of men and women that could hear appeals from rabbinic courts because in the current system “there’s no female voice being heard.”
For more information about the standards, contact L’Ma’an B’nos Yisrael International at (718) 338-0833.