BBC airs film on Jewish divorces

LONDON, Feb. 6 (JTA) — Campaigners for Jewish women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce are praising a BBC documentary on the subject.

Broadcast on BBC 1 on Monday, “Everyman: Chained Wives” examined the issue of agunot — Hebrew for “chained women.”

The 50-minute program included the stories of agunot in both Britain and the United States, as well as scenes from the rabbinical court of controversial Rabbi Emanuel Rackman.

Rackman has set up his own Beit Din, or religious court, to annul the marriages of women whose husbands refused to grant them a religious divorce.

Agunot are prevented from remarrying in an Orthodox ceremony. Children born to an agunah are classified as mamzerim, or illegitimate, and may marry only other mamzerim, according to Jewish law.

No such provision applies to a husband who fathers children without first completing the Orthodox requirements for divorce.

The work of Rackman and his colleague, Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, is not recognized by other Orthodox authorities, though they have been praised by advocates for agunot.

The BBC program was inspired by a trip Morgenstern made to Britain in 1999 to perform a wedding for an agunah.

A spokesman for British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said he thought the program had given too much prominence to Rackman and Morgenstern.

“Their work is not accepted by any Beit Din in the world, and is adding to the problem,” said spokesman Jeremy Newmark.

Sacks participated in the program, expressing the traditionalist position, which says there is little contemporary rabbis can to do change Jewish law.

“It’s impossible for us to change the central parameters of Jewish laws of divorce, which is no divorce without mutual consent, and people who are suggesting otherwise are raising expectations that will never be met,” he told the BBC.

But his spokesman welcomed the program as “an interesting piece of television” and said he thought some good could come of it.

“We hope it will put pressure on recalcitrant husbands who have refused to give their wives a get,” or Jewish bill of divorce, he said.

Sandra Blackman, an activist with Britain’s Agunot Campaign, also praised the program.

“I was very pleased with it. I thought that it was clear, well-explained, and that it gave both sides of the story,” she said.

She said she thought the documentary would help educate the public about the issue.

“There is a lack of knowledge, even among Jews,” she said. “This issue is not being taught, not even in the Orthodox schools.

“As people become familiar with the situation, they’ll want justice,” she added.

The documentary was broadcast only three days after an effort to help agunot was defeated in Britain’s Parliament.

Labor legislator Andrew Dismore reintroduced the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act, which would enable judges to deny men a civil divorce if they would not grant their wives a religious one.

The bill was defeated last Friday by Eric Forth, a Conservative legislator who also blocked it when it was introduced last summer.

Forth said at that time that his objections were procedural and did not concern the substance of the bill.

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