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'They took her freedom and her womb, and gave her nothing'

Woman freed after being ‘chained’ in her marriage for 22 years

Tamar’s ex-husband fled to the US to evade child support payments and refused to grant her a divorce, preventing her from starting a new relationship and having more children

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The problem is unique to Orthodox Judaism, and especially ultra-Orthodoxy.  (photo credit: Shutterstock/JTA)
Illustration. (Shutterstock/JTA)

After more than two decades of living “chained”to her husband, a woman identifying as Tamar was granted a divorce this week, a more bitter than sweet end to one of the more drawn-out cases of divorce-refusal in Israel, according to the organization that represented her through much of her legal proceedings.

“There is great joy mixed with great pain for the years that Tamar lost in which she could have developed new relationships, brought more children into the world and — mainly — been free,” said Orit Lahav, the CEO of the organization Mavoi Satum, meaning “dead end” in Hebrew, which represents Tamar and other women denied a divorce.

Tamar is a pseudonym as the woman asked to maintain a degree of privacy while sharing her story. Though she provided an account of her ordeal through the organization, Tamar would not speak directly to The Times of Israel.

Tamar was designated as a “chained” woman for 22 years. In Judaism, “chained” women, or agunot, are women whose husbands either refuse to grant them a divorce — or a get in Hebrew — or are physically unable to, leaving them in a tragic state of limbo, not exactly married but not able to move on either.

In Israel, where there is only religious marriage or divorce, these women are also legally trapped, potentially facing certain penalties in any future divorce proceedings if they have romantic relationships with other men, as this would technically constitute adultery. They are also unable to have children with other men, as those children would be considered illegitimate under Jewish law, which bars them from marrying in almost all circumstances.

According to Mavoi Satum, “chained” status happens to roughly one in every five Israeli women who request a divorce, typically as an extortionary tactic during divorce proceedings, though generally these get refusals last a relatively short time, from a few months to a year or two. Though not unheard of, a 22-year refusal is highly unusual.

Under the Israeli chief rabbinate’s interpretation, as well as that of most authorities on Jewish law, there is no way to dissolve a legally valid marriage without the consent of the husband. Rabbinic courts can impose sanctions, including prison time, on husbands who are recognized as refusing to give a religious divorce, but they cannot force them to give one. The rabbinate’s hands are further tied if the divorce-refusing husband flees the country, putting them out of Israeli jurisdiction, as was the case with Tamar.

“They took her freedom, they took her womb, and gave her nothing in return,” Batya Cohen, the attorney from Mavoi Satum who represented Tamar, told The Times of Israel.

Tamar and her ex-husband married in 1998 and a short time later she gave birth to their daughter.

According to an account from Tamar, the marriage — which her ex-husband was never particularly enthusiastic about — broke down relatively quickly. Her husband was often verbally abusive, refused to pay his half of their living expenses and mostly slept at his parents’ home, leaving her to care for their child alone.

After a few months of this, Tamar filed for divorce and sued her ex-husband for child support in late 1999.

A day before their first hearing, he fled to the United States and has apparently been living there ever since.

In 2000, a family court ruled that Tamar was entitled to child support, and that year a rabbinic court also ruled that her then-husband should provide her with a get. Both of these rulings were largely moot as he was no longer in the country and out of their respective jurisdictions.

Orit Lahav, CEO of the Mavo’i Satum organization, which advocates on behalf of women who have been denied a divorce, in an undated photograph. (Israeli Bar Association)

According to Tamar’s attorney, over the years representatives of the rabbinic courts contacted her ex-husband to persuade him to grant her a divorce but to no avail. Tamar eventually offered to drop all conditions, including her request for child support, in exchange for the divorce, but still he refused.

Though she could not start new romantic relationships or have additional children, without running the risk of legal and religious consequences, Tamar’s then-husband was able to do both. He found a new partner and had at least one child with her, according to her attorneys.

Due to the jurisdictional issues, Tamar’s case was largely viewed as a lost cause and languished in civil and rabbinic courts for years. And then suddenly this week, Tamar’s attorney received a call.

“Rabbi Asher Ehrentreu [from the Rabbinical Court’s Division for Agunot] called and said, ‘I have your get.’ It was signed with no conditions,” Cohen said.

According to Mavoi Satum, a local American rabbi had convinced Tamar’s ex-husband to grant the divorce. “And that was it,” Cohen said.

Tamar is now in her 50s, living in the Jerusalem area, and her daughter is legally an adult.

Mavoi Satum said Tamar was considering suing her ex-husband in civil court for damages. This would include both the child support she was denied and for her suffering as an aguna, which Israeli civil courts have upheld as a legitimate cause for damages. Cohen added that “no money in the world could sufficiently compensate her for the years that he took from her and for her rights over her body, which were also taken from her in terms of bringing other children into the world. This was completely taken from her.”

“The rabbinic courts need to do some introspection about how a woman’s life can be taken from her mercilessly due to Jewish law. We know that there are solutions in Jewish law to this phenomenon of ‘chaining’ women and every day that the rabbinic courts don’t use those solutions is a terrible injustice and a hillul hashem,” Lahav said, using a Jewish term meaning a desecration of God’s name.

“We bless the fact that Tamar is now a free woman today and wish for the day when all ‘chained’ women will be freed without needing to wait for more than two decades,” she said.

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