State And Synagogue

Will Lapid And Bennett Free Israel's "Chained Women"?

Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckhotlz on politicians' promises of religious reform in Israel.

On March 6, as coalition talks lurched haltingly forward (“Yesh Atid, Jewish Home Deal ‘Could Be Done within Hours,’” one naïve headline announced), a prisoner in the custody of two Israel Prison Service guards escaped from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court by climbing out of a second-floor bathroom window. The 40-year-old haredi man was there because, after spending the past six years in prison for refusing to grant an official Jewish divorce, or get, to his wife—with whom he had already been separated for seven years before that, after only two years of marriage—he had finally agreed to terms and conceded to release her from 13 years of enslavement as a “chained woman,” an agunah.But this hopeful breakthrough turned out to be no more than a deviously effective pretext for his escape.

Two days later would be International Women’s Day, and the timing was not lost on the woman identified in an Israeli television news interview only as ha-mesurevet—“the refused.” Standing with her back to the camera to conceal her identity, she invoked the upcoming holiday in a plea directed at the incoming Knesset. “These have been 13 very hard years. You don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "I can’t get married, I can’t have children. But I am not just speaking for myself." She concluded, “I hope that the members of parliament will draft legislation that will force the giving of a get, as prescribed by Jewish Law.”

Now that the government has been finalized, and Lapid’s alliance with Bennett affirmed as not merely a negotiating strategy but a governing partnership, it seems fair to ask Lapid where “the refused” fit on the agenda—if at all. If not, a central pillar of Yesh Atid’s promised social reforms will have to be judged a failure. For any substantive conversation about the liberalization of religious state power in Israel must feature a commitment to solving the agunah issue. And in this context, the question of whether Lapid’s commitment to such liberalization is substantive, and not merely cosmetic, remains open to skepticism.

According to conventional wisdom, Yesh Atid’s union with Jewish Home reflects Lapid’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the Palestinian issue for a more central (or perhaps, in their view, more accomplishable) party platform: anti-haredi social reform. Essentially abdicating any pretense of advancing the process toward a two-state solution, his attitude seems to be: if we can’t fix our external issues, at least we can work on our internal ones—the economy and the haredim. And on these issues, he seems to feel Bennett and his party will prove valuable assets.

Yesh Atid-Jewish Home’s hope for implementing the social pillar of their domestic agenda rides on their mutual support of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, a group of National Religious rabbis touted as a kindler, gentler alternative to haredi dominance. Indeed, their united backing of Tzohar has been cast as a central selling-point of what seemed on its face to be an incongruous alliance. Lapid’s insistence on securing the Education Ministry for Yesh Atid’s number two, Knesset Member Shai Piron—one of Tzohar’s founders—was a public demonstration of his emphasis on domestic religious reform.

But one ought to ask just how “revolutionary” this coup would prove to be. In fact, Lapid’s party will be voting for a rabbinate that, while superficially perhaps more user-friendly, is little more than a new face of the same old oppressive policies—much like Bennett himself. Substantively, Tzohar has shown little interest in improving the lives of ordinary Israelis, much less Israeli women. One need only look at their record on addressing the problem of agunot.

Tzohar’s approach to this ongoing scandal of needless suffering and rabbinic indifference was reported in a July article in the Jerusalem Post. According to its Chief Rabbi candidate, Rabbi David Stav, the organization was “working intensively” on its own version of a halakhic prenuptial agreement. While such agreements are important and should be mandatory, they do absolutely nothing for the thousands of women who have already been enslaved by this flaw in Jewish law. For many of these women, the only way to reclaim a normal life for themselves is by acceding to outrageous, extortionary demands in exchange for their get. In the end they surrender everything, and many end up impoverished as a result.

In what is perhaps a sad irony, it is non-haredi religious women (e.g. National Religious and Sefardi-traditional) who suffer most from being agunot, as haredi communities often deal with the issue internally, through their own religious courts and various forms of public pressure. Thus, a liberal shift in the Chief Rabbinate, with a sincere and aggressive commitment to solving the agunah issue, has the potential to make a significant positive impact on relieving these women’s plight.

Yet according to all available information, Tzohar’s ascendance to the Chief Rabbinate would do nothing of the sort. When the now infamous get-refuser’s second-floor escape was reported throughout the Jewish world, Rabbi Stav could have risen momentarily over the slog and din of politics-as-usual, and made a statement promising to do everything in his power to ensure that no woman is allowed to languish indefinitely in a state of legal and emotional limbo.

Unfortunately, no such proclamation is likely forthcoming. The reason is that contrary to its image as a more liberal alternative to ultra-Orthodoxy, Tzohar is essentially an Orthodox outreach organization. As Stav himself was quoted in a February Haaretz article, “Tzohar is in the business of being nice. I am a salesman who is selling Judaism.” This niceness is in the service, essentially, of selling traditional Jewish marriage, sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate, to non-Orthodox Israelis, who Stav lamented have been opting out of it in increasing numbers.

Thus, even accepting Lapid’s premise of sacrificing the Palestinian agenda in favor of the domestic one, he and his party fail at achieving the latter goal in a meaningful way. Lapid represents the stamp of approval of middle- and upper-middle class secular Israel. But instead of bringing them more to the center, his promiscuous entanglement with Bennett puts them in bed with an even farther-right force than Likud-Beitenu. Bennett gets all of middle-class Tel Aviv (i.e. Lapid’s base) to support the settlements. And their constituency gets the continued state-sponsored religious dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate.

There is a widely quoted rabbinic tradition that credits women with a central role in the Jewish People’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Worn down by the rigors of slavery, the men lost their desire to procreate. The women then went to great lengths to ply their husbands with food and drink, whereupon they took out mirrors and used them for flirtatious foreplay to reawaken their men’s dormant drives. According to tradition, these mirrors were later donated to the Tabernacle, where they were re-formed as the laver used by priests to purify themselves for Temple rites.

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Of course, mirrors don’t always reflect such happy endings. Which is precisely what we need them for.

We recently became aware of the story of a young woman with two small children, who was part of a mainstream National Religious community in Gush Etzion. Her husband was addicted to Internet pornography and serially unfaithful, and she had resolved to leave him. Yet he insisted he was still in love with her, and thus refused to grant her a divorce under any circumstances.

And that—for the moment, and for the foreseeable future—is where the conversation stands.

If Tzohar, with the backing of Yesh Atid-Jewish Home, succeeds in its plans for the Chief Rabbinate, will its rabbis allow themselves to look into the mirrors of these enslaved women? Will they allow a better version of themselves, the tradition, and society to be reflected back at them? The agunah crisis has been going on for too long for them not to have a proactive platform for its resolution. The Members of Knesset who are supporting Tzohar need to hold them accountable to mustering whatever combination of courage, creativity, and will is required to solve it.