Can a woman refuse to give her husband a Jewish religious divorce? It just happened in Australia.


(JTA) — The plight of “agunot,” Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, is well known. There are organizations, social media campaigns and movies that address the issue.

Less familiar is the reverse — Jewish men whose wives won’t cooperate in divorce proceedings.

According to Jewish law, in order for a Jewish married couple to divorce, the husband must issue the wife a writ of divorce, called a get, and the wife must accept it. Both must do so of their own volition or they cannot remarry.

In Australia, an Orthodox Jewish man sued recently in a secular court to force his wife to receive his get.

The couple had gotten a civil divorce after 15 years of marriage, but the wife was refusing to come to Sydney’s Jewish religious court, or beit din, to complete the religious divorce proceedings, The Australian reported Wednesday. The husband, who was identified in court records only as Mr. Idelsohn, asked the family court to withhold the wife’s property settlement — about $760,000 — until she agreed to accept his get.

But the court declined to become involved in a religious matter, citing a prohibition in the country’s Constitution.

There’s a reason cases like these tend to stick out: They are much less common.

“The trend that you see with get refusal either way might be similar to trends of domestic abuse in that most people who are the offenders with domestic abuse tend to be the men, and the same is true for the get,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association.

Another group, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, helps both men and women whose spouses won’t grant them a divorce. In the vast majority of cases ORA sees — 98 percent — women are seeking redress from recalcitrant men.

“One thing that we’ve seen is that even though it can happen in the other direction, it’s been very rare for us,” managing director Keshet Starr told JTA.

Granted, both organizations are largely known for their work with women. Still, Jewish law doesn’t treat men and women dealing with a recalcitrant spouse the same.

Men have a recourse available to them should their wives refuse to cooperate with divorce proceedings — a legal remedy called “heter meah rabbanim,” meaning the permission of a hundred rabbis. The loophole, which is not available to women, allows a man whose wife won’t or can’t receive his get to go through with the divorce by obtaining the support of 100 rabbis.

Many rabbinic courts are reluctant to use the loophole, Starr said, but its availability lowered the stakes for husbands whose wives are uncooperative in divorce proceedings.

“On one hand, if a husband is trying to do things in an above-board, legitimate way, the heter meah rabbanim isn’t such a great alternative,” Starr said. “However, it is an option that is there that can be obtained, so I think because of that the threat of a husband saying ‘I’m not going to issue a get’ to his wife is fundamentally different than a wife telling her husband ‘I’m not going to receive your get.’”

Women also face consequences with regard to having children. If a married woman has a child with a man other than her husband — regardless of whether she is trying to get a divorce — the child is considered a mamzer, a term loosely translated as bastard. Jewish law places severe restrictions on marriage for mamzers, such that they may not wed most members of the Jewish community. The child of a married man and an unmarried woman other than his wife is not considered a mamzer, and thus a man whose wife refuses to accept his get does not need to worry about the Jewish legal status of his children.

Still, the system allows abuse from both sides.

“Anyone who is abusive can take advantage of it either way,” Weiss-Greenberg said.

Recommended from JTA