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“The Happy Aguna”, by Barbara Sofer
The Jerusalem Post (Friday, December 24, 1999)
“I'm an aguna, but don't worry, this is a happy story,” H., using her full name, introduced herself to guests at a dinner for Ohr Torah Stone last week in Jerusalem.
Technically, H., 43 and a mother of two, is a mesurevet get, a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce, and not an aguna. In modern parlance, aguna has come to include all women who can't get a religious divorce, not just a woman whose husband has disappeared. H.'s husband lives in Israel, but you wouldn't know it from his absence from their court hearings.
Nonetheless, as H. spoke at the benefit for the religious network of educational institutions, she was remarkably cheerful and articulate. Living in limbo between marriage and divorce isn't ideal, but it's a lot better than the state of terror she used to live in.
“My husband controlled everything I did,” she said. “If I wanted to buy a sweater, I needed permission, so I stopped buying clothing. Instead, I wore rags. If I needed to have my teeth filled, he said it was too expensive. When I inherited money, he took it and spent it.”
Unable to endure the daily oppression, she tried to kill herself, first with drugs and vodka, then by lying in the road, hoping to be hit by a car.
H.'s attorney warned her that this last act might weigh heavily against her in a custody hearing. But after she was examined by a psychologist the civil court determined that H.'s desperate state was a result of her living conditions. They saw the suicide attempt as a cry for help and awarded her custody. A settlement was negotiated to divide the property.
Then came the crunch. H.'s husband realized that the deal would include his giving a get, a certificate of Jewish divorce. Why should he give up this trump card? In his previous two divorces, this precious document had earned him major concessions and money.
Although state courts can determine custody and property division, rabbinical courts have sole jurisdiction over divorce for all Jewish Israelis, religious or not. Since they deal with such a delicate, emotion-laden issue, rabbinical courts should be models of compassion, wisdom, and efficiency.
H.'S case moved over to the province of rabbis. As usual, they urged the couple to try counseling and work on their marriage. But the husband who didn't want to pay for a sweater wasn't willing to pay for visits to a psychologist.
H.'s rabbinical court advocate, toenet rabbanit, argued that Judaism does not compel a woman to live with a man who is repugnant to her. That's the law.
For 13 long months the rabbis were mysteriously silent. Finally, in June 1999, the rabbinical court issued a hiyuv get, a declaration that this man should divorce his wife.
H.'s husband simply ignored the rabbinical order, and nothing happened to him. Both in October and last week, he failed to show up for additional hearings. H. has asked the rabbinical court to revoke her husband's driving license, to get him to pay her the money due according to her ketuba, and to bring him to court under police escort.
The happy aguna waits on.
Marriage is sanctified under a huppa, the symbol of a couple's future home. If the dream of marital bliss metamorphoses into a nightmare, as it did for H., the religious authority should also serve as a safety net.
The lawyers and rabbinical court advocates I know keep telling me how much the rabbinical courts have improved in recent years. Somehow, that's not much comfort.
H. isn't a religious woman. Nor was her experience in the rabbinical court apt to bring her closer to tradition. Yet she has become more observant since the court process began. Here's how: Each court action and appearance requires costly legal representation. A special-education teacher who lives on a modest salary, H. could never have afforded to continue the court fight without subsidized legal aid. Broke but not broken, she heard about the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline and phoned (02-671-0876). The legal aid lawyers and rabbinical court advocates who stood up for H. are all devout Jewish women. They've become her role models.
And who was the late Max Morrison? He was a lawyer whose children found a fitting and inspiring manner of perpetuating their father's Jewish values. Attorney Morrison provided legal services to poverty-stricken folks in Knoxville, Tennessee. Now, another group of the dirt- poor is benefiting from his family's generosity: beggared Jewish women seeking divorces. Praiseworthy are the Morrisons. Ashamed should we be that such a service is necessary.