Thousands of Little Pharaohs: The Plight of the Agunah
By Martin Berman-Gorvine
In this Passover season, consider the plight of Jewish women whose marriages have ended but whose (former) husbands refuse them a get (bill of divorce), which only the man can grant under the traditional version of halachah (Jewish religious law). The spectacle of thousands of Jewish men behaving like little Pharaohs, in whose hands is the power to enslave or free their former wives, has become sadly familiar.
Not so well known is the inner world of the agunah. What are the emotional and spiritual consequences of being “chained” to a dead marriage? I spoke to “Deborah,” a former agunah from an Orthodox community in England, who was married for 13 years and had two children with a man who refused her a get for nearly five years following their February 2007 civil divorce, until he decided to get remarried.
Describe the community you and your ex came from.
I come from an ultra-Orthodox community in Manchester. I am the eldest of nine children. The average family has seven or eight children. My ex came from a modern Orthodox family in London, one of four. We were never on the same level of orthodoxy. No two families are!
At what point did you become aware that your ex was not going to grant you a get? How did he inform you?
I knew from early on this would be an issue. My ex mentioned in [British civil] court that he would give me the get after the “decree nisi [provisional decree of divorce].” Many times afterwards, he would say he would grant it on certain conditions. He asked for money—half the value of the matrimonial home, £200,000 [about $320,000]. He asked my family to pay him money in order for him to grant the get.
Was the Orthodox community supportive of your struggle? What are your feelings about that?
It was “oh dear, poor fella”—meaning my poor ex. It was a case of how can we support the man. I never had support. Of course my friends supported me, but even that became an issue. I lost people I thought were friends, but seemed to side with my ex. You definitely learn who your friends are when you divorce. I felt the community did not know how to handle the situation. For example, should my ex and the children be invited for Shabbat lunch, or me with the children? The rabbi carried on allowing my ex in the synagogue. I feel very let down by my community, then and now. I tried talking to so many people and so many rabbis. I have over 20 rabbis’ numbers in my cell phone. … I wanted action. I never got it. After I agreed to take part in a TV documentary about agunot, I was even more shunned. In the end, I left the Orthodox community, five years ago now.
What steps did you take to appeal to the Jewish religious court, the Beth Din, and other community authorities, and what did they do to try to convince your ex to grant the get?
I applied to all four Beth Dins here in London for a get. I do not feel there was any pressure for him to grant me a get. His rabbi made him his gabbai [sexton]. That had a ripple effect. People left the synagogue. But my ex would not go to the Beth Din when called to do so. Except on a few occasions, I was called to the Beth Din, I would go with my solicitor [attorney]. [My ex] got me excited, feeling the get was almost there, but then it all fell apart. I had various meetings with my rabbi and solicitor, but to no avail. He said he will go when he is ready. I always prayed that he would meet someone, it would be the only way he would grant the get. I was right!
What were the practical and emotional implications of your agunah status for you?
My life was put on hold, I was in limbo land. I couldn’t date, I couldn’t marry, I couldn’t anything. I tried talking to various people and rabbis to assist, but to no avail. I was depressed, I was very unhappy. I was doubting myself, I was doubting G-d, life, religion, everything that I always lived by. What was my purpose in life? I cannot live like this, I felt strangled. It all vanished.
It was an awful situation to be in. It was a very dark time for me. I felt I would never have love again in my life. It was scary, frightening.
I did have wonderful people and friends around me who supported me through my awful ordeal. The husband of a friend of mine walked out of the synagogue my ex-husband was a member of when he was honored with an aliyah to the Torah.
I was so desperate I got a liberal [non-Orthodox] get [not requiring the ex-husband’s consent], but that did not do it for me. I still felt chained to my ex as I am not a liberal.
I have so many questions now. What is the Jewish life and way all about?
I do not wish being an agunah on any woman. I feel the power should be taken away from the man. It is wrong! I am a free woman.