Tag Archives: marriage

Thousands of Little Pharaohs: The Plight of the Agunah

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

In this Passover season, consider the plight of Jewish women whose marriages have ended but whose (former) husbands refuse them a get (bill of divorce), which only the man can grant under the traditional version of halachah (Jewish religious law). The spectacle of thousands of Jewish men behaving like little Pharaohs, in whose hands is the power to enslave or free their former wives, has become sadly familiar.

Not so well known is the inner world of the agunah. What are the emotional and spiritual consequences of being “chained” to a dead marriage? I spoke to “Deborah,” a former agunah from an Orthodox community in England, who was married for 13 years and had two children with a man who refused her a get for nearly five years following their February 2007 civil divorce, until he decided to get remarried.

Describe the community you and your ex came from.

I come from an ultra-Orthodox community in Manchester. I am the eldest of nine children. The average family has seven or eight children. My ex came from a modern Orthodox family in London, one of four. We were never on the same level of orthodoxy. No two families are!

At what point did you become aware that your ex was not going to grant you a get? How did he inform you?

I knew from early on this would be an issue. My ex mentioned in [British civil] court that he would give me the get after the “decree nisi [provisional decree of divorce].” Many times afterwards, he would say he would grant it on certain conditions. He asked for money—half the value of the matrimonial home, £200,000 [about $320,000]. He asked my family to pay him money in order for him to grant the get.

Was the Orthodox community supportive of your struggle? What are your feelings about that?

It was “oh dear, poor fella”—meaning my poor ex. It was a case of how can we support the man. I never had support. Of course my friends supported me, but even that became an issue. I lost people I thought were friends, but seemed to side with my ex. You definitely learn who your friends are when you divorce. I felt the community did not know how to handle the situation. For example, should my ex and the children be invited for Shabbat lunch, or me with the children? The rabbi carried on allowing my ex in the synagogue. I feel very let down by my community, then and now. I tried talking to so many people and so many rabbis. I have over 20 rabbis’ numbers in my cell phone. … I wanted action. I never got it. After I agreed to take part in a TV documentary about agunot, I was even more shunned. In the end, I left the Orthodox community, five years ago now.

What steps did you take to appeal to the Jewish religious court, the Beth Din, and other community authorities, and what did they do to try to convince your ex to grant the get?

I applied to all four Beth Dins here in London for a get. I do not feel there was any pressure for him to grant me a get. His rabbi made him his gabbai [sexton]. That had a ripple effect. People left the synagogue. But my ex would not go to the Beth Din when called to do so. Except on a few occasions, I was called to the Beth Din, I would go with my solicitor [attorney]. [My ex] got me excited, feeling the get was almost there, but then it all fell apart. I had various meetings with my rabbi and solicitor, but to no avail. He said he will go when he is ready. I always prayed that he would meet someone, it would be the only way he would grant the get. I was right!

What were the practical and emotional implications of your agunah status for you?

My life was put on hold, I was in limbo land. I couldn’t date, I couldn’t marry, I couldn’t anything. I tried talking to various people and rabbis to assist, but to no avail. I was depressed, I was very unhappy. I was doubting myself, I was doubting G-d, life, religion, everything that I always lived by.  What was my purpose in life? I cannot live like this, I felt strangled. It all vanished.

It was an awful situation to be in. It was a very dark time for me. I felt I would never have love again in my life. It was scary, frightening.

I did have wonderful people and friends around me who supported me through my awful ordeal. The husband of a friend of mine walked out of the synagogue my ex-husband was a member of when he was honored with an aliyah to the Torah.

I was so desperate I got a liberal [non-Orthodox] get [not requiring the ex-husband’s consent], but that did not do it for me. I still felt chained to my ex as I am not a liberal.

I have so many questions now. What is the Jewish life and way all about?

I do not wish being an agunah on any woman. I feel the power should be taken away from the man. It is wrong! I am a free woman.

The Jew With Two “Beards”

By Steven Philp

To their neighbors they look like every other Orthodox Jewish couple, a man and woman married for five years with two children in tow. Even the fact that their marriage is a product of convenience rather than love is not unusual, yet the particular reason for their union is unique: the man is gay, and the woman is lesbian. Their marriage owes its genesis to Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living on the West Bank; over the past six years, he has paired thirteen Orthodox gay and lesbian couples. For Harel it is a simple solution to a more complex problem: these are men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex, yet desire to remain in good standing with their communities by acquiring the familiar roles of Orthodox adulthood—a traditional family of one man and one woman.  Are the members of these couples simply “beards,” a slang term that usually describes a woman who marries or dates a gay man to “prove” his heterosexuality?

According to Time, Harel has been quietly pairing gay and lesbian couples for years. It was not until this past spring, when he mentioned his service at a Jerusalem-based panel on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights that other communities became aware of these couples. Not surprisingly, he has met criticism from both fronts. LGBT organizations cite his pairings as disingenuous, leading to loveless—perhaps unfaithful—marriages. On the other hand, several of his peers believe that Harel should do more to discourage their attraction to people of the same sex. They look to the controversial practice of “reparative” therapy, which claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through counseling and aversion treatments. However, prominent health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have questioned the efficacy of “reparative” therapy, citing evidence that its methods can cause lasting negative psychological effects. Although Harel believes that many men and woman can change their sexual attraction, he concedes that some individuals cannot—hence the necessity of pairing the men and women who continue to desire a traditional Orthodox marriage despite their homosexuality. “This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within halakhah,” Harel explained to Time. “This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s kind of a solution.”

After his project went public, Harel found an increased demand for his services. He revealed plans to launch an online matchmaking service—Anachnu, Hebrew for “We” —for Orthodox gay and lesbian individuals who desire similar pairings. At the moment there will be five matchmakers on staff, all heterosexual. Harel will oversee operations as a consultant. Membership for the site will be $42, although if successful pairing is made both the bride and groom will pay $430 each.

When Harel began pairing gay and lesbian couples in 2005 there were no LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel. Currently there are five, including one that is working closely with Harel to promote his matchmaking service. Kamoha—Hebrew for “Like You” —announced its intent to host a link to Anachnu. The founder of Kamoha, a closeted Orthodox man who has adopted the pseudonym Amit, explained the reasoning behind their decision to support Harel. Although many gay and lesbian individuals want total acceptance within the Orthodox community, there are some whose desire for a quiet, normative lifestyle outweighs their sexual attraction. “We’re not pushing this on people,” explained Amit to Time. “This is for people who want this because Jewish law says this is the normal way and because it’s the easiest way to have children.” As for himself, Amit explained that he has not desire to utilize Anachnu; after many years of therapy, he came to the conclusion that he is “100% gay.”

However, not all LGBT Orthodox groups are comfortable with the implicit support that Kamoha has lended Harel. Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man living in Jerusalem and spokesperson for the pro-LGBT organization Havruta, explained that the matchmaking service will lead to unhealthy relationships. “I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it’s about caring, loving, and sharing,” Jonas told Time. “This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don’t love each other, the kids will feel it. It’s not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this.” Concerns have been raised about the fidelity of these marriages, a problem that Harel acknowledges and addresses with the potential gay and lesbian couples. In an interview with the Associated Press, Harel pointed to his belief that having children will provide a substantial foundation for the pairing to build a genuine relationship. “Their love is based on parenthood,” Harel said. “Parenthood is the glue and it’s strong.”

Still the efficacy of these relationships is called in to question. In an interview with one of the men paired by Harel—who chose the pseudonym Josh—Time revealed that even the presence of children is not a foolproof safeguard against infidelity. Josh, a 30-year-old Orthodox gay man, admitted to cheating on his wife at least three times over the three years of their marriage—most recently in February of this year. They have an 11-month-old son. “I haven’t told my wife, but I think she knows,” Josh said. “She can see it in my face when I come home.” Yet he explains that their mutual struggle with same sex attraction has provided space for an intimate, if unorthodox, partnership. “But she give me space,” Josh concluded. “I really love her because she understands me.”

A Declaration of Ignorance

By Steven Philp

Republican or Democrat, American Jews inherit a history of progressiveness concerning issues of race and religion. Yet a pledge released by the conservative organization Family Leader, expounding racism and religious intolerance uncharacteristic of our community, includes an unexpected Jewish stamp of approval. The document in question is the “Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family.” Released on July 7, the pledge is intended for Republican presidential candidates looking for sponsorship from the Family Leader, a right-wing political organization that includes the Iowa Family Political Action Committee. Their influence is not limited to the Midwest swing states; considering their affiliations with national bodies like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, an endorsement from the Family Leader is a vital feather in the cap for any Republican hopeful looking to co-opt the conservative vote. The document—grounded in a concern for the integrity of the American family— includes promises of Constitutional fidelity, a commitment to upholding “traditional” marriage values and federal deficit reduction. This is undergirded by the unquestioned locus of “faithful monogamy…at the very heart of a designed a purposeful order.” This in turn is derived from “Jewish and Christian scripture,” “Classical philosophers,” “Natural Law,” and—of course—“the American Founders.” It may be time to modify synagogue curricula; according to the Family Leader, if you study enough Torah you may find elements of the “Marriage Vow.”

While having “Jewish scripture” appropriated by a group that defines itself as a “Christ-centered organization” may rankle progressive Jews, it would not be the first time that the Tanakh has been used in defense of “traditional” marriage values. We only have to look to the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State to find examples of recalcitrance within the Jewish community, where a number of conservative Jewish groups used Biblical text to justify their opposition to the expansion of marriage rights. What is problematic is that a Christian organization has attempted to associate Judaism with a bigoted document that not only targets the usual suspects (divorcees, single parents and LGBTQ individuals), but also sets its sites on African-American and American Muslims. The document states that despite the ills of slavery, a black person born in 1860 “was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.” This garnered sharp criticism from moderate and liberal organizations, including the NAACP, who pointed to the fact that historical evidence shows that slaves were often prevented from marrying, and that selling family members to different slave owners was common practice. Furthermore, the implication that life was better for African-Americans under the burden of slavery is, at the very least, inaccurate and dangerously ignorant. The outcry forced the document’s first two signatories, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, to backpedal, according to The Huffington Post, and elicited a statement from the Family Leader saying, “After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect, we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued.” The passage has been removed from subsequent publications of the pledge.

Yet the statement concerning American Muslims is of equivalent ignorance; one of the fourteen points of the document has the presidential candidates vow to “[reject] Sharia Islam and all other forms of anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” Following the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the coexistence of Islam and the West has become a heated issue among American politicians, religious leaders and academics. One of the primary concerns—at least for conservative politicians—is Sharia, the code of personal and communal conduct for observant Muslims.  Republican presidential candidates have offered several choice sound bytes concerning Sharia: Rick Santorum called it “an existential threat” to the United States, while Herman Cain explained that he would not readily appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet because “there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.” While neither can provide concrete examples of an Islamic takeover, they do exemplify general ignorance concerning what Sharia is.

Translated to “path” or “way,” Sharia is not unlike Halakhah—a system of laws built over time from a central religious text (in this case, the Qur’an), the teachings of religious figures (for Muslims, these are the words of Mohammed recorded in the Sunnah) and subsequent centuries of religious scholarship. It is an evolving and diverse legal tradition, with tenets that reflect denominational and regional affiliations. To be Muslim is—in a way—to practice Sharia, of the type and to the degree befitting your desired level of observance. Like the Jewish tradition, there is the possibility for fundamentalism—this is exemplified in stories of stoning and beheading popularized by the global media. Yet also similar to Halakhah, Sharia is malleable; there is room for progressivism and adaptation. In the same way that every Jew engages with elements of Halakhah—applying it to our identity in unique and productive ways, debating with our peers over its applicability in contemporary society and embracing its place (in whatever form) in the history and structure of our community—so too Muslims also work with Sharia. The similarities between the two traditions are striking, from laws concerning ritual purity, to conduct in business relationships, to customs surrounding food consumption. One would think that in the United States, Jews would have the greatest empathy with our Muslim peers when their religious code is attacked.

Any Torah scholar— understanding that our moral structure, like Islam’s, is born of written and oral traditions—should recognize that Family Leader’s rejection of “Sharia Islam” is equivalent to forbidding “Halakhic Judaism;” this is the same as a ban on the faith tradition itself. Similarly, given the strong stance that Jews have taken against slavery and segregation—derived from our own narrative of bondage in Egypt—it is unlikely that the Jewish community would wax nostalgic on the subject position of the African-American slave. Associating the Jewish community with a document like the “Marriage Vow” to legitimize its bigotry shows that Family Leader is not only ignorant concerning the African-American community and Islam, but Judaism as well.

They’re Here, They’re Queer….We’re still getting used to it.

By Niv Elis

Dismayed.  Disappointed.  Disgusted.

These are the adjectives commenters posted in response to a statement by The Jewish Standard, a New Jersey weekly, declaring that it will no longer publish marriage announcements for gay couples.  The decision came in the wake of the first gay engagement to grace the paper’s lifestyle pages, honoring Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen.

Following its publication, reports the Standard:

A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused.

The accompanying decision to stop running gay wedding announcements aroused a massive influx of criticism, pressuring the editorial board to reverse its decision.  One writer suggested that the paper change its name to “The Jewish Double Standard.”

The incident demonstrates the contentiousness of a debate over gay rights that has been going on for years, but has only recently started to make headway in the Orthodox community.  Informed by the 2001 documentary Trembling Before God, the focus of the discussion has moved from simply questioning the religious legality of homosexuality to examining the ethical implications of ostracizing gay Jews.  Last week’s shocking suicide by an outed gay freshman at Rutgers university accentuates the humanitarian dimension now central to the conversation.

“There are plenty—and probably a very strong majority—in the Orthodox world who think even acknowledging publicly the suffering of gay Orthodox Jews is out-of-bounds,” points out Steven I. Weiss in his excellent Slate article on the topic.  Loosening rules on homosexuality by definition strains the adherent philosophy to which the Orthodox subscribe.  But there are indications that “a critical mass of Orthodox aren’t going to ignore the problem completely.”

Support groups such as Jewish Queer Youth and the cleverly named OrthoDykes have popped up to offer guidance for distressed, religious  Jews questioning their sexuality and gender identity.  This past July, a group of Orthodox Rabbis cobbled together and signed a statement on homosexuality, grappling with the human implications of the Jewish law in a very serious way.  It opens with the declaration that “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot).”

Given the strong feelings, religious convictions, and high stakes on both sides of the discussion, it seems unlikely that it will be resolved at any time soon.  In the meantime, all eyes will be on New Jersey’s Jewish Standard, eagerly anticipating on which side of the gay Jewish debate it will ultimately fall.