- Sima Kotecha and Ellie Jacobs
Rifka Meyer was 32 years old when she got married. Two and a half years later, she became what is known among Orthodox Jews as a “wife in chains.”
She was trapped in a religious marriage to a man who refused to give her a divorce.
“You feel desperate and very lonely,” she told the BBC’s Newsnight programme. “You feel like you’re screaming unheard.”
It would take nearly 10 years for Meyer to obtain a religious divorce.
But more than 100 women from the Charedi Jewish community remain trapped in religious marriages in the UK, according to Rep. Jonathan Mendelsohn, who is on a parliamentary committee formed to help them.
“What shocked me is that I’ve been contacted directly by a lot of people since I raised this issue,” he says. “Dozens of cases, including several members of the Jewish community I live in.”
Jewish Law Requires Permission for Divorce
Under the law of Orthodox Judaism, a husband must give his wife a document called get, which authorizes the divorce.
Without this, for community members, she remains married even though she is legally divorced.
Women trapped in these religious marriages are known as agunot or “chained wives”.
Meyer says that without the get, could not have another partner. “You’re stuck. I couldn’t think about finding someone else, dating or moving on with my life.”
“There is no communication or support to help you through this process. You feel desperate and very lonely. It’s a very lonely journey.”
Meyer, who lives in London, finally received her husband’s document last year. Now she runs an NGO called Gett Out to help other women in the same situation.
What happens if the divorce is refused by the husband?
- The woman is prohibited from remarrying, as this would be considered adultery
- She can’t have kids with anyone else. If so, the child is called mamzar, being excluded from the community
- The Jewish Court, called the Beth Din, you can annul the divorce if you believe the man was pressured to sign the document
An amendment to UK domestic violence legislation now provides that refusal to grant religious divorce is considered a form of domestic abuse.
That is, do not give the get, is now framed as coercive and controlling behavior, and the man can be prosecuted and even imprisoned if convicted.
The expectation is that women will have more power to denounce their ex-husbands if they are not willing to give a religious divorce.
But the Federation of Synagogues, a group representing Orthodox Jews, says any divorce document “granted under pressure, whether due to physical, economic or imprisonment threats, is absolutely invalid” under Jewish law.
“The couple will remain married, despite the granting of the document”, says the letter.
The federation added that any woman who uses the protections of domestic violence legislation will have “tied hands” by the Jewish Court, as “clearly, in this situation, the husband will be acting under pressure.”
Eli Spitzer, a professor who is part of the Orthodox community in London, says some rabbis believe that women seeking help with legislation “will have started an irreversible process.”
“The husband will no longer be in a position to give his wife a divorce willingly, because he will be at risk of prosecution. Therefore, the rabbis are saying that this undermines the essence of a Jewish divorce, which needs to be given freely and spontaneous will,” he says.
But Mendelson, who is also a Jew, believes there is no conflict between religious and non-religious legislation, and questions the intentions of the rabbis who say there is.
“They chose to create a conflict where it doesn’t exist. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s because they feel they’re losing control of part of the process,” he says.
“But in any situation where a religious minority exists in a democracy, you have to balance things out. I think they have to understand the situation and realize that this is the UK, the UK in 2021.”
Some Orthodox Jews told Newsnight that they believe the Torah (Jewish law) was not intended to allow women to be trapped in unhappy marriages. But there are fears in the Orthodox community that secularism is trampling religion, erasing centuries-old traditions and a law practiced by millions.
Meyer says that while UK domestic violence legislation helps women, we need to “work together with the rabbis as well”.
“Women feel desperate and will do anything to get the get” she says. “It’s a lifetime of these women trapped in a marriage that has died. “
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