When I hear stories pertaining to the religious Judaism of my indoctrination, naturally, I prefer to hear the positive. I enjoyed reading about the Connecticut rabbi who found wads of cash in a Craigslist-purchased desk and immediately returned the money. I like tuning in to TV features in which yarmulke-wearers are among those that have in some way inspired courage in cancer victims. I love reading about girls from the local yeshiva day school who donated long braids to Locks of Love. I feel awed and proud to know the orthodox woman in her 60s who gave her kidney to her lifelong friend. I am honored to know the local Lubavitch rabbi who also donated a kidney -- to someone he barely knew(!), determined to save the man's life. Many of these great stories have not even been told due to the humble personalities involved. Smaller acts of kindness happen every day, like the women who donate expensive sheitals (wigs) to Lillian Lee, the founder of Do Wonders in Teaneck, NJ. Lee created the non-profit (according to its mission statement) "to lift the spirits of women with cancer by providing them with wigs, free of charge." There are so many wonderful stories, many of which we do not hear about, but which put Orthodox Jews in a positive light. Then there is the topic of Get, Religious Divorce. When it comes to stories on that subject, I don't have that same warm, fuzzy feeling -- au contraire. I get riled up. I accept invitations to join Facebook groups demanding immediate change and justice. The outlandish stories connected to religious divorce should not be representative of Judaism.
By now, if you are reading this section of The Huffington Post, you are familiar with recent reports on the above that have been in the media. Hopefully, you have learned that it actually goes against orthodox Judaism for a man to withhold a "Get," the religious document that allows both parties to finalize their divorce through the beit din (religious court). The Get allows both parties to move on and eventually remarry. Due to all the publicity surrounding cases of husbands refusing to grant Gets, the Rabbinical Council of America released the following statement:
The Rabbinical Council of America strongly condemns the refusal of spouses to participate in the delivery and receipt of a get, the Jewish religious divorce process, when the marriage is functionally over and the relationship between the husband and wife has irreversibly ended. We deem the withholding of a get under such circumstances to be an exploitation of the halachic process and a manifestation of domestic abuse.
The RCA reasserts the vital importance of the use of the halachic prenuptial agreement endorsed by our leading rabbinical mentors and by the Beth Din of America; details available at www.theprenup.org. It has a strong track record of preventing agunot by helping to bring couples to beth din in order to resolve issues concerning the get.
Having grown up in the orthodox Jewish community, I know the value of a "Get" and how a woman becomes an "agunah," a chained woman, when her husband refuses to grant her one. She is like a branch about to blossom chained to the dead oak of her marriage. Yes, it screams "antiquated" that husbands -- men! -- hold the power. Orthodoxy is new to feminism, but we must give it credit for making strides. Organizations such as ORA (the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) are on a mission to ensure that the Get issue is peacefully resolved. Unlike that crazy news story that in no way reflects ORA's tactics, where Rabbis were paid to torture recalcitrant husbands, Ora's goal is to ethically ensure that the Get issue is resolved. Says ORA's Rabbi Jeremy Stern: "Our mission is to ensure that a get is issued unconditionally. Divorces are messy businesses, further complicated from a legal perspective, but the refusal to issue a Get is a form of domestic abuse. It is never ever justified: Just as physical battery is never acceptable, this is not acceptable. It is too slippery a slope for someone to say they can take the law into their own hands because they didn't get a fair trial in court." Stern adds that ORA greatly advocates for the signing of a halachik prenup as part of the Ketuba (the official religious marriage license document) to ensure that if the marriage ends, there is zero room for Get refusal.
Some laymen argue that a halachic prenup -- despite the fact that halacha literally means law -- will not stop a controlling husband who is under the grave misconception that a Get can be used as a bargaining tool, to obtain money or increase custody, and thereby bring shame -- to both parties. The concept for the halachik prenup is relatively new to orthodoxy (it has been around for a little over a decade). However, Rabbi Stern asserts: "We've seen it work. It's extremely effective."
Growing up, I learned from my parents (Looking back, I appreciate their wisdom and relative progressiveness as compared to other parents) that there is NEVER a reason to withhold a get. It can never be used for blackmail or as a form of legal manipulation. Ginnine Fried, an attorney who published an article on the beit din in relation to the U.S. court system, is as floored as I am by stories of lawyers who advise clients not to sign Gets, and by those who weave the Get issue into legal conversations. There is a clear separation between church and state in this country. In that same vein, Fried explains, the U.S. court system cannot compel someone to sign a religious document.
My mother was somewhat of a pioneer in the Pre-ORA era, helping to stage a peaceful protest for a friend who was in the midst of a messy divorce. She and a small group of other women let the rabbi of a synagogue know that if he allowed the abusive, Get-refusing husband into the synagogue, the women would move from the women's to the men's section. This was enough to horrify the orthodox pulpit rabbi, and needless to say, my mom and her crew did not have to Mechitza hop (Mechitza refers to the divider between men and women in an orthodox synagogue).
You give the Get, plain and simple. If you are a woman, you don't refuse it. Tales of the latter are less common though apparently not unheard of, but I turn the focus to men in this essay due to recent newsworthy cases. Those who refuse to grant the Get are essentially cutting off their noses to spite their faces. And by that, I mean exactly what is happening to a young man from Staten Island (ironically, the grandson of a respected Rabbi who championed for agunot during his lifetime) who has, according to Rabbi Stern, been "shunned by his community" and whose dynastic relatives were forced to resign from their positions at a prominent religious publishing house. This particular case, according to Rabbi Stern, is dragging along because it is "unabashedly about wanting more money."
In the above case, as well as in the case of a DC congressman's aid, despite demonstrations organized by ORA and the publicity, a Get has been held up for years. In anticipating the comments section below this article, I want to make it clear that the women in these cases are religious. They will not, as you might suggest, just break the Halacha that determines they cannot remarry until a Get is issued. The halachic prenup is a recommended step for the future and it may radically help in preventing future problems, but the current issues have gotten out of hand. These cases have been brought to public attention because they demand a solution. The chained women, victims of domestic abuse due to Get refusal, according to Rabbi Stern, require a solution.
Divorce... It is so commonly dirty any way you slice it:
Ari (who also goes by "Ariel") Schochet, of Teaneck, is a former Wall Street financial exec who was laid off and no longer can keep up with the alimony demands reflecting his former $1M annual salary. He did the right thing years ago by giving his ex her Get without delay, and he fully appreciates that he would have not have the community's support or sympathy had he withheld it. I can't help but feel that because of that, we somehow need to do right by Schochet, who, between prison stays, is advocating for alimony reform (NJ and Florida are notoriously behind in making strides in this arena. A Bloomberg reporter researched Schochet's situation for months on end to verify the injustice of his particular situation.
Furthermore, I can't help but feel that the philanthropic among us, as a communal effort, need to band together to help out a guy who did the right thing, the very thing we are begging others to do. Schochet gave the get! Now, how can we help him? I pose the question to Rabbi Stern, asking if there is some way ORA can intervene (Schochet feels that there is little support because he is seen as a "deadbeat," a new kind of conundrum for the orthodox community). Interviewing Schochet, it is clear that he is a man who has been psychologically scarred by repeated imprisonment. At one point, he was even handcuffed in front of his daughter. Rabbi Stern replies that ORA's mission is purely to assist in matters related to Get. However, his heart goes out to Ari Schochet and he says that there are other organizations for him to turn to, one of which is Project Ezrah, a non-profit that did help Schochet for a time period. However, the alimony web proves to be a seemingly endless and convoluted one for the father of four, with high paying jobs increasingly harder to find for a man frequently sporting an ankle bracelet. He is thankful to currently be employed at all -- albeit in an entry level position.
"Going on a job interview with the bracelet on, telling a potential employer that you'll be out for court appearances, then on work release from prison a few days here and there ...that's kind of hard to explain!" says Schochet.
Rabbi Stern emphasizes: "Imagine if he hadn't given the get -- There would be absolutely no sympathy or support." I agree. Had Schochet not given the get and had he imprisoned his wife in marriage, many would say that he is now getting a taste of his own medicine. We could say that he cut off his nose to spite his face. But in this case, Schochet gave the get. He did the right thing when it came to religious divorce. When reading about manipulative spouses who withhold a document as a form of extortion, one can't help but wonder how to help a brother who did not go this awful route. While the orthodox community and friends of Ari Schochet share his story via social media, he remains a question mark on our screens. Communal support is such an integral part of orthodox Judaism and on that note, what can we do for Ari Schochet?
If anyone reading has the answer, perhaps we can create good news that Jews like me like to see.