In rare move, private rabbinical court sets ‘chained’ woman free after 23 years

In rare move, private rabbinical court sets ‘chained’ woman free after 23 years

‘Tzviya Gorodetsky has suffered enough,’ says ruling by panel headed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, dissolving nuptials; decision unrecognized by rabbinate

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

A private rabbinical court dissolves the marriage of Tzviya Gorodetsky in June 2018 (Courtesy of the Center for Women's Justice/Rachel Stomel)
A private rabbinical court dissolves the marriage of Tzviya Gorodetsky in June 2018 (Courtesy of the Center for Women's Justice/Rachel Stomel)

A private rabbinical court on Monday dissolved the marriage of a Jewish Israeli woman whose husband has refused to grant her a religious bill of divorce, or a get, for 23 years, in what is believed to be the most extreme case of an agunah or “chained woman” in the State of Israel.

Tzviya Gorodetsky’s husband, Meir, has opted to remain in prison since 2000 rather than grant the divorce papers, without which she cannot remarry under both Jewish law and the law in Israel, where personal status issues are handled by the rabbinate.

Gorodetsky, 54, has been unsuccessfully pursuing a get through the state rabbinate system since 1995, and last year launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset in protest of her status. Though Monday’s decision will not be recognized by the state’s Chief Rabbinate since it was conducted by a private court, it gives the Ukrainian-born Gorodetsky, who is religious, a Jewish legal mandate to remarry.

A spokesperson for the state rabbinical courts declined to comment on the private ruling.

Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber at the June 9, 2015, ordination celebration of the first cohort for Har’el Beit Midrash. (Sigal Krimolovski)

The ruling by the private rabbinical court, headed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber and convened by the Center for Women’s Justice organization, terminated the marriage on the grounds that the abusive conditions of the marriage were such that no one would knowingly have agreed to the nuptials; that the husband failed to disclose his mental illness before the wedding; and based on Gorodetsky’s testimony that it was she, not her husband, who had purchased the wedding ring.

It was the convergence of those three conditions and their corresponding Jewish legal arguments — Umdena d’mochach, mekah ta’ut, and kinyan — that persuaded the rabbinical judges that the marriage could be invalidated without a divorce, the ruling said.

“Mrs. Tzviya Gorodetsky has suffered enough,” the rare religious ruling (Hebrew) said. “The husband has proven that so long as he is alive, she will not receive a get.”

Two of the rabbinical judges who debated the case have remained anonymous over fears that criticism of the ruling could see the rabbinate calling into question their past conversions and rulings, according to Rachel Stomel of the Center for Women’s Justice. The British-born Sperber is a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and an Israel Prize winner.

The anticipated controversy was addressed in the ruling, which said “we have no doubt this ruling will arouse controversy, as has happened now and again over innovative decisions.

“This controversy, in part, will be a controversy for the sake of heaven as is the way of the Torah, and in part, will be a controversy of Korach and his associates,  which is not the way of the Torah, and it is our hope that the former overpowers the latter,” the rabbinical judges said.

The ruling further affirmed that the decision was made in consultation with prominent “talmidei chachamin [scholars] who have dealt with practical matters of divorce and marriage” for years. The identities of those Jewish legal authorities were also not disclosed by the CWJ over backlash concerns.

“I really feel at peace,” Gorodetsky told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “Beforehand I felt that I was in a situation that is unreasonable, that justice has not been done, that I am in distress, and now it’s a comfort that there are rabbis who think differently and who agreed to free me. I got my freedom back.”

In May 2017, Tzviya Gorodetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years (Courtesy)

The decision was hailed by Susan Weiss, the executive director of CWJ.

“Today we celebrate Tzviya’s emancipation. Tomorrow we hope to proclaim freedom for all Jewish women to control their religious destiny. All Israelis should be free to choose which religious authority — if any — will inform their lives. This is but another example of how the entanglement of religion and state infringes not only on civil liberties but on religious freedom,” she said.

Speaking to The Times of Israel last year, during her hunger strike, Gorodetsky said she first asked for a divorce two decades earlier “because of a tragic incident of domestic violence” in which she lost a baby, days before she was due to give birth. After hearing her account and the testimony of her husband, in 2000 a rabbinical court ordered him to give her a divorce within 30 days or face a prison sentence, she said.

He showed up to the hearing with a bag packed for jail, she said.

The mother of four, who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1990 and married at 19, called off her hunger strike after eight days after another hearing at the state rabbinical courts, during which her husband again refused to grant her a divorce.

“Today, they told me at the rabbinate that there is no solution. That in Jewish law, there is no solution,” she said in May 2017. “That even for Ron Arad [the abducted Israeli pilot whose fate is unknown], they couldn’t allow [his wife to remarry] until signs that he is not alive are found. That not everything can be solved. That’s their answer.”

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