`Chained' divorcees seek their freedom

Get: Orthodox Jewish women held hostage by ex-husbands in divorces could receive help from the General Assembly.

February 04, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Jere Finer, an Orthodox Jewish divorcee and mother of three, remains chained to her ex-husband by a religious bond she cannot break.

Finer is one of the agunah, Hebrew for "chained woman." She is held hostage in marriage by an ex-husband who refuses to grant her a "get," the religious divorce decree required by Jewish Law if she wants to remarry after a civil divorce and remain in the faith.

"It means I can't date. It means I can't remarry. And it has put me in quite a financial bind," said Finer, 39, of Pikesville. "It's been four years [since the divorce]. The emotional toll it has taken on the children and myself, I can't describe."

The plight of the agunah has caused such anguish in the Orthodox Jewish community that its rabbis -- powerless to enforce the dictates of Jewish courts -- approached Baltimore legislators three years ago for help.

After three unsuccessful attempts, the lawmakers have again this year introduced a bill in the General Assembly, patterned on a 1983 New York law, that would allow a civil divorce only if the husband agreed to grant his wife a get. If it passes, Maryland will be the second state in the country with a get law.

It is difficult to determine the number of agunah in this country. New York-based Agunah International Inc., a volunteer group that aids women whose husbands are withholding gets, says it has taken on 300 cases in the last three years.

Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville and a leader of the Orthodox community, said there are not many such cases in Baltimore. "To the best of my knowledge, in our jurisdiction, it is about two or three a year," he said.

That it happens at all is a source of consternation.

"I don't think it involves a great number of people, but it's a pretty nasty situation for those who are involved," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who first introduced the legislation. "Divorce in general can get nasty. And you have this added element of nastiness if the husband holds the get over the head of his ex-wife."

The biblical justification for the get requirement is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 24: "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house ."

According to rabbinical interpretation, only the husband may initiate a religious divorce. The original reason for this might have been to protect the woman's welfare.

"While it is difficult to pinpoint why the Torah so decreed, it could be suggested that since women in biblical times found it difficult and even impossible to fend for themselves socioeconomically, they would under no circumstances desire a get," Rabbi Avraham Weiss wrote in his essay, "The Modern Day Agunah: In Retrospect and Prospect." "The Torah reflects this reality by providing that the husband give a get as the wife would never initiate such a proceeding."

The modern dilemma is that the ancient concept of the get has met the modern concept of the messy divorce.

"The problem of a get in Judaism is that it's one way, from the husband to the wife," said Rabbi Chaim Landau of Ner Tamid Congregation in Pikesville. "This has given rise to many, many situations and cases whereby the husband either refuses to divorce his wife with a get out of spite or holds her to blackmail and will only present it to her in lieu of being paid a considerable sum of money."

In Israel, where the rabbinical court can enforce its decisions, including requiring a man to grant a get, there isn't the same problem with the agunah. In the United States, with its separation of church and state, the rabbinical courts have no secular legal authority to implement decisions.

Therefore, the rabbis resort to other measures. One is persuasion, a rabbi trying to persuade the man to grant his wife a get. Other measures include humiliation, such as picketing in front of the man's house or workplace and banishment from the synagogue.

To prevent future cases of agunah, many rabbis are insisting that the couples they marry sign a prenuptial agreement in which the man promises to pay his wife a stipulated penalty for each day he refuses to issue the get.

The legislative solution is one that has worked in New York, and the hope is that it will work here. To pass constitutional muster, the bill is broadly worded, addressing religious principles without singling out a faith. It states that any person seeking a civil divorce must submit a sworn statement that he or she has taken all steps necessary to remove any barrier to a spouse's remarriage.

For the past three years, Rosenberg has introduced the legislation in the House of Delegates. The first two years it died in the Judiciary Committee when some lawmakers couldn't see the reason for a bill that would affect such a small group of people.

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