Q. The media have widely covered the recent arrests by the FBI of a group of orthodox Jews in New York who arranged for the kidnapping and torture of men who refused to give their wives a gett. Is there any justification whatsoever for such behaviour in Judaism, given the limited options available to solve the plight of agunot (“chained” women)?A. Women who can’t achieve a religious divorce from their ex-husbands are called in Hebrew agunot, literally “chained” women. They are chained to a man they don’t want and a marriage they wish to be over. It works the other way too, that sometimes it is the man who wants the gett and the woman who refuses to co-operate, though the statistics are that more men are recalcitrant than women.
In theory there should be no problem: divorce in Jewish law is a matter of consent, and when two decent people have tried marriage and found it did not work they should both do the moral thing and break the chains. But for a range of reasons one party can be and sometimes is recalcitrant.
The Beth Din cannot impose a divorce without their consent, so the Jewish court system cannot be blamed. Attempts have been made to recruit the secular legal system to achieve the gett indirectly, by placing a sanction on a recalcitrant party that will, for instance, deny them a civil divorce decree or affect their financial situation, and in some jurisdictions these endeavours have begun to bring results.
Some Jewish communities impose their own sanctions – for instance, refusing synagogue honours to a husband who denies his ex-wife a gett, picketing his place of business, or shaming him in other ways.
The best method of moral suasion is trying to convince him to co-operate and secure his agreement through quiet diplomacy, and this generally succeeds.
Now comes the issue of sending the message by means of (literal) strong-arm tactics – giving him a black eye, breaking his arm or leg or threatening to, and doing other things that sometimes achieve the gett but bring great opprobrium upon the rabbis or others who are responsible.
There are at least three problems with this type of pressure:
• It contradicts the Jewish ethic of not causing deliberate pain, damage or injury.
• It harms the reputation of Judaism amongst both Jews and non-Jews.
• It brings into question the voluntary nature of the gett.
In regard to the third issue, a gett given under compulsion raises a host of questions. Maimonides has a shrewd answer, that it is not the beating that brings about the husband’s agreement, but it shocks him and brings out his inner human feeling for the right thing. Maimonides thinks that doing the right thing is a Jew’s real nature, and all this drama ensures that this characteristic of conscience will re-assert itself.
Does this mean that black eyes and broken legs are an acceptable moral tactic? It doesn’t sound good, and from the moral point of view it isn’t… even though the woman in the case might end up finding the freedom she wants and is entitled to.
The best way is to employ non-physical methods such as diplomacy, communal sanctions and the help of the civil law system. Even better is to educate couples in marriage before they ever enter the chuppah and show that prevention is better than cure.