‘We must end the stain on our faith of wives trapped in failed marriages’
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‘We must end the stain on our faith of wives trapped in failed marriages’

Cross-party peers explain why they are trying to help a tragic minority of chained wives

Unchained. Peers are urging colleagues to back a domestic abuse bill which would free women from gets. (Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash via Jewish News)
Unchained. Peers are urging colleagues to back a domestic abuse bill which would free women from gets. (Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash via Jewish News)

As a cross-party group of Jewish Peers, we have joined together, supported by leading women’s charities, communal organisations and top lawyers, to address an issue we all feel passionately about.

We have long been troubled by the problem of Jewish wives who are trapped in a failed marriage and held hostage by religious laws which allow a husband to refuse to set them free. Of course the majority of Jewish divorces proceed smoothly, but we would like to help this tragic minority, whose plight is a stain on the religion we all hold dear.

Jewish law stipulates that only a husband can initiate the formal divorce document – known as a ‘Get’ – without which the wife remains ‘married’ to him in Jewish law, even if civilly divorced. Remarriage is forbidden for these so-called ‘Agunot’ (chained wives) as it is considered adulterous and any future child is labelled a ‘Mamzer’ and excluded from mainstream religion.

We recognise there has been some progress on this issue in recent years. Rabbinic authorities  have tried to find halachically acceptable ways to permit these women to divorce, with ‘Get-refusing’ husbands being ostracised and shamed, but about thirty women in Britain remain trapped in this dreadful situation.

The Dayanim (Bet Din Judges) attempts to find resolutions have often been stymied by the complexities of Judaic law, with Torah, Midrashic and Talmudic law requiring husbands to give their wife a Get willingly. If he is considered to have been forced into it, the Get may be invalidated, leaving the wife ‘chained’ with no way out, either having to accept she cannot remarry or have children unless her husband relents, or reject her Jewish religious life.

Baroness Altmann, Lord Mendelsohn, Baroness Deech and Lord Palmer

Consistent, unreasonable Get refusal can be perpetrated by vindictive husbands seeking to retain coercive control over their wife’s life, or can be a means of extorting money and other demands. This clearly represents abusive behaviour and, as Parliament is currently debating a ground-breaking Domestic Abuse Bill, establishing emotional, psychological, economic and other types of abuse as unlawful, we thought it appropriate to include this problem. So we have laid amendments to the Bill which could provide some help and protection to British women suffering this cruel abuse.

We respect Jewish Law and would never seek to over-ride the authority of our Bet Din. But as legislators in this country, we feel we have a duty to try to protect these women as much as domestic law can, without undermining their position in Jewish law.

We want these women to know they are not alone and, alongside marvellous charities such as Jewish Women’s Aid and GettOut UK, many fellow Jews want to help. Establishing in law – or including specifically in the statutory guidance – that Agunot are being abused could provide help and protection available to other domestic abuse victims. We also hope this could be helpful to the Bet Din as they try to find ways to free the chained women and encourage more men to give their wives a Get.

We are meeting with Ministers and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who are extremely supportive and will table amendments at the next stage of the Bill in the Lords in coming weeks. We hope to meet with the Bet Din too.

Surely the Torah could not have intended women to be so cruelly abandoned to the whims of recalcitrant husbands. As committed Jews, we believe Judaism offers a wonderful way of life and want to see our religion thrive for future generations. Kindness, compassion and caring for others are core religious values and Orthodox Judaism has made real progress in advancing women’s rights and inclusion in religious life, but the plight of Agunot does not fit this.

We fervently hope our work might represent a small step forward to help resolve these tragic cases, while also ensuring these women know they are not forgotten.

 

  • Signed by Baroness Altmann, Baroness Deech, Lord Mendelsohn, Lord Palmer – respectively Conservative, Cross-bench, Labour and LibDem Peers

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