GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem or, The Craziness of Israeli Society

03/25/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is a small-bore, low-budget film about marriage and divorce in Israel. The action takes place almost entirely in two rooms, a Jerusalem Bet Din (Rabbinical Court) and its waiting room, accommodations that look like a second floor seminar room at the 92nd St. Y. It's a hearing by the rabbis (three of them) on Viviane Amsalem's request for a legal divorce from her husband. A "small" even provincial film, GETT won't reach far into American cinemas around the country. In NYC it's showing in a few independent theaters. However it received the Israeli Film Academy's Ophir award for best picture and was Israel's entry in the Academy Awards for best foreign language film. Netflix or some other service should have it. To search it out is worthwhile for anyone interested in the various kinds of craziness in Israeli society and to wonder at how the fragile mosaic of incompatible parts holds together at all. The main reason is of course what has always kept Israeli society going: existential dangers.

Gett is the Hebrew word for a legal divorce document in Jewish law. The story here is that Viviane Amsalem, a loyal wife to Elisha in a religiously devout household, after thirty years of what long ago became a loveless marriage has been applying for a divorce for three years. The problem is that for historical reasons at the time of Israel's founding in 1948, the Orthodox rabbinate was given full legal control of the institution of marriage among Israeli Jews, meaning that only an Orthodox rabbi can create a legal Jewish marriage or divorce. (Under Israeli law, only religious authorities -- Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Christian -- can conduct marriages or divorces.) Crazily, even today there is still in Israel neither civil marriage nor civil divorce. (Couples who want a civil marriage often go on a quick trip to Cyprus.) The husband is legally in charge of the couple, meaning he has authority over his wife. Only he can allow a divorce, his permission expressed in a gett, which the wife "accepts" even if she is the one who wants to end the marriage. When the film opens Viviane continues trying to convince Elisha to agree to divorce, to no avail. The film depicts the last two years of struggle during which the adamant three-rabbi court tries every means to convince her to remake the couple. Viviane doggedly tries but cannot reconcile herself. So every few months there's a new hearing. Finally, the court agrees that she has just cause. Using its legal power, the Bet Din orders Elisha to agree to a divorce -- the court could under law apply punishments including, in principle, prison time -- and sign the Gett, which means a woman is now free to strike relationship with another man, i.e. the transgression of adultery no longer applies. (In the get ceremony as depicted in the film, Viviane must accept the document from her husband with outstretched cupped hands, put it under her armpit, walk to the wall and come back.) But even when we thought justice would finally be done, Elisha at the last minute backs out again. In a heart-rending conversation in the film's last scene he tells her what she must promise finally to have his agreement. Viviane promises that there will never be another man sexually.

The film, the work of sister-brother co-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz (she co-stars), is an impassioned portrayal of an implacable woman of character. It's at once a feminist film, obviously, and a larger story about diminishing the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) authority and influence in Israeli life.*

Haredi men, for example, to permit their life of Torah and Talmud study in the synagogue, were always exempt from Israeli military service, though now this is being chipped away. Their wives work to provide some income but many ultra-Orthodox families live in relative poverty and must be supported by various State social subsidies that divert money from the working population's needs even as it pays almost all the taxes. Haredi Yeshiva students receive significant monthly stipends to support their studies. Therefore is it astonishing that ultra-Orthodox religious principle has always rejected the creation of the State of Israel itself on the grounds that such a state should be founded only when the true Messiah finally returns. The Haredi are a deeply controversial social, religious and political problem for the rest of Israeli society. But they have one saving grace: they make a lot of babies. Israeli Jewish demography, vital to the idea of a Jewish majority state, depends on the ultra-Orthodox, whose numbers are growing while every other group's are declining. (If memory is correct, because of low birthrates in the other Jewish groups, fully 60 percent of Israeli first-grade children are Haredi, most in religious schools.)

In this context we go back to the mosaic composition of Israeli society as a whole. There are five "communities" in Israeli society, each making up about 20 percent of the population: Ashkenazim (Jews of modern Eastern European origin); Sephardim/Mizrahis (North African Jews who arrived there after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and also the historically Middle Eastern Jews, including descendants of the Jews of the Babylonian exile); the Arab-Israeli Muslims (who for the first time united into a single electoral front this time around and increased their number of Knesset seats significantly); the Haredis; and the Russians, well over a million that emigrated from the Soviet Union beginning in the 1980s. In addition, among the other groups are large numbers of seculars, including those who, as Bernard Avishai says, don't want a Greater Israel, they want a Global Israel, meaning an Israel that is a cosmopolitan tech start-up society.

The point is that The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is an education for those interested in Israel as a nation. It depicts one of Israeli society's problems at home, at the same time as Israel must deal with all the Middle East's crises and threats, including what to do about the Iran nuclear negotiations. Jewish survival seems once again, as so often, a miracle.

*After intending to write this piece for a couple of weeks I was pushed over the edge by a New York Times article (March 21, A14), recounting the story of Fraidy Reiss, a New Jersey Orthodox woman, now forty years old, who as a teenager had been forced into a betrothal to a man she hardly knew and after 10 years of an abusive marriage quit her husband and her Orthodox community. She founded an organization called Unchained at Last that helps women from all faiths in her situation.