Agunot: Women Chained to their Marriages

In Israel, some women are chained to their marriages, unable to get a divorce, and held hostage by the Ultra-Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate.

Central to the Pesach story is the enslavement of the Jewish people, as they were forced to remain in Egypt and work as slaves for the Pharaoh.

Although they are not chained to work as slaves, some Jewish women are bonded to their husbands, unable to get a divorce. These ‘agunot’ (chained women) are battling for freedom from their husbands in the rabbinical courts. Although the issue of agunot is one that is universal in Judaism, in Israel the problem is exacerbated because of the central control Ultra-Orthodox religious authorities have over personal status issues like marriage, divorce and burial.

The film "Gett, the Trial of Vivian Amsalem" explores many of these issues. Watch the trailer below, and you can also stream the film through the Jewish International Film Festival.

Watch "Gett"

While both the lack of civil marriage and divisions over burial remain, arguably neither have the devastating effect that the difficulties associating with getting a divorce – and the ‘agunot’ that sometimes result – has on Israeli society.

The Jewish divorce process can take years, depending on the behaviour of recalcitrant husbands and the rabbinical courts, which believe that the initiation of a divorce must come from the man. During this time the ‘chained women’ are left vulnerable to their husbands’ terms.

In Israel, all cases of marriage and divorce are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinate’s hegemony in this sphere dates back to the earliest days of the state, when David Ben-Gurion negotiated what is known as the ‘status quo’ with Orthodox parties. Although there has been some liberalisation in recent years, often thanks to the intervention of the High Court of Justice, the Rabbinate is still an isolating figure to many Israelis, with non-Orthodox streams almost totally unable to receive recognition.

One way this is manifested is in the general absence of women in the Rabbinate’s staff. In 2008 The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) sued the rabbinical court administration for only allowing men to apply for the position of legal assistants in the rabbinical court. While the Labor Courts of Israel ruled in favour of CWJ’s appeal to disqualify the job tender, the absence of women employees in the rabbinical court remains a major issue.

The near-total exclusion of women from the religious authority is particularly difficult for agunot as it leaves them at the mercy of a system that not only provides poor structures for their freedom but one which also discriminates against them. With civil divorce remaining impossible for the foreseeable future for Israelis, the agunot issue is compounded by the Rabbinate’s homogeneous scheme and the lack of choice that all Israelis face.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did David Ben-Gurion negotiate what is known as the ‘status quo’ with Orthodox parties? How has this decision impacted on the trajectory of Israeli history?
  2. When there is no separation between ‘Church and State’, as in Israel, what are some of the likely outcomes?
  3. Do you know any Israeli couples who have left Israel to get married? What impact has it had on their identities as Jews?