Abuse in the Jewish Community
Basic info about Jewish divorce law
What is a “get” or “sefer k’ritot?”
A get is a religious divorce under halacha (Jewish law), and can only be given by a husband to a wife. The word can also refer to the paper that officially gives a get. This is a sefer k’ritot (scroll of severance). The sefer k’ritot is a “no-fault” document and does not list any specific reasons for the divorce. A sofer (scribe) writes it out specifically for the couple involved.
What is a “beit din?”
A beit din is a rabbinical court, usually consisting of three rabbis but sometimes it consists of one rabbi and two educated, nonreligious (secular) members of the community. A beit din can be held for many reasons, such as to oversee a person’s conversion to Judaism or to give a couple a get.
If a husband requests a get, the beit din meets only once, to witness the writing of the sefer k’ritot (scroll of severance) and its delivery to the wife. In this case, the beit din will not question either party but will simply oversee the process. If a wife seeks a get, the beit din must first meet to hear her case. If they decide her case is valid, they will require her husband to appear before them to give the get. However, if he refuses to appear, the beit din has no civil legal authority to force him to do so. A beit din generally will not require a woman to appear if she is in danger, and will usually not ask a woman to appear at the same time as her abusive husband.
In some places, to convene a beit din, the parties must sign a shtar birurim, which is equivalent to an arbitration agreement. An arbitration agreement is when the parties agree to have an outside person or group make a decision about a disagreement, and agree to follow that decision under the law. While a decision from the beit din in the arbitration matter won’t stop a civil court from deciding custody, visitation, and child support, it may prevent even a state court from considering other issues like dividing property, assets, and debts.
In some communities, the parties agree that the beit din should decide the terms to end the marriage, and the parties use the beit din’s decision as a marriage settlement that is given to state courts with other uncontested divorce documents. After going through this process, some survivors may feel they have no option but to follow the decision of the beit din. It is helpful to consult with an attorney about what civil rights you may have in this kind of proceeding before signing such an agreement. Go to our Finding a Lawyer page and choose your state from the drop-down menu for legal resources in your state. You can also find attorneys who work in get law on our Jewish Resources page.
What is an “agunah?”
An agunah (“chained woman”) was traditionally a woman whose husband had disappeared in wartime or at sea, for example. Such a woman could not remarry under Jewish law because her husband could not be proven to be dead. In the event that her husband is still alive, they would still be considered married if he didn’t give her a get before disappearing. In current times, as a solution to this problem, in the State of Israel, many men write their wives a conditional get before leaving for military service. This document assures that if the husband is lost in battle, his wife will be free to remarry and go on with her life.
Today, however, many agunot (plural of agunah) find themselves “chained” by husbands who refuse to give them a get. This refusal to give a get is a common form of spousal abuse, a way to keep power and control over a woman and prevent her from moving on with her life. Often a man abuses his power by refusing to give a get unless his wife agrees to give him custody of their children, money, or something else that he wants.
Being an agunah can create real hardship and sorrow for a woman, her children, and for her friends and family. As an agunah, she is unable to remarry and have full control over her own life decisions. For Orthodox women especially, whose identity is often tied to being a wife and mother, the inability to remarry and perhaps have children can make her feel as if she has lost her identity.
What is a “mesarev get?”
A mesarev get is a man who refuses to give his wife a get, forcing her to become an agunah (“chained woman”). Such behavior is frowned upon by all streams of Judaism.
What are “mamzerim?” How are they treated within Jewish communities?
It can be important to get a get for the sake of any future children. If a Jewish woman remarries without having received a get, even if she has received a state law (civil) divorce, the children of her second marriage are technically considered illegitimate (mamzerim), and will not be accepted into many Jewish communities. If someone is considered a mamzer (singular of mamzerim), the label “mamzerim” will be placed on the next ten generations of his/her family. However, if a man remarries without a get, his children are not considered mamzerim.
The fact that future generations of a mamzer are considered mamzerim may motivate even Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews to get a get for the sake of their future children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Though the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept a civil divorce as sufficient to constitute a Jewish divorce, many liberal rabbis will counsel divorcing couples to get a get if possible, in order to conform with a stricter interpretation of Jewish law.
The Reform movement rejects the entire concept of mamzerim, and accepts any child of any Jewish parent as a Jew who is able to marry into the community and participate in services. The Conservative movement holds the position that a congregation should not dig into a member’s background, which basically implies that a Conservative synagogue can accept mamzerim. In Orthodox circles, mamzerim are not permitted to participate in the religious life of the community in any way. This means that a mamzer cannot participate in a synagogue, or marry a Jew either in an Orthodox community or in the State of Israel.
What are some reasons Jewish women may not want to leave a marriage?
Jewish women, like many women who live with domestic violence, may be afraid to leave their husbands out of fear for their children’s safety or fear of being separated from them. They may also fear that they will not find help or a safe place to go to. Women who keep kosher may be afraid to leave abusive husbands because of the difficulty of obtaining kosher food or observing Shabbat (the Sabbath) in a shelter or safe house. Orthodox women may fear exposing their children to nonreligious (secular) culture in a shelter. However, there may be shelters available that have a kosher kitchen or that might provide you with resources so that you can bring in your own kosher food.
Talk to a domestic violence advocate in your state to find out what is available by going to our Advocates and Shelters page.
There are legal services agencies out there that specialize in helping religious Jewish women. To find out if any exist in your community, you can look on the Finding a Lawyer page for your state, or you can go to the Jewish Resources page in our National Organizations section.
What do I need to know about “get” law before I get married?
Who can give a “get?”
A literal interpretation of Jewish law says that only a man may start religious divorce proceedings, and he must do so voluntarily. A man would generally have a sefer k’ritot (scroll of severance) written to end the marriage. Some Orthodox authorities still hold strictly to this law, but Conservative, Reform, and even many Orthodox authorities agree that the wife may begin the process of the get by convening a beit din (rabbinical court). However, a woman cannot give a get, and she cannot force her husband to give her a get against his will.
Who may need a "get?"
Any Jewish person who has been married to another Jew of the opposite sex is eligible to receive a get. If you are a Jewish person who married someone who is not Jewish or married someone of the same sex, you are not eligible to receive a get and do not need one to be considered divorced.
If you are a Jewish person who did not have a religious marriage or were married by an official of another religion (for example, in a Unitarian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baha’i, Buddhist, or Hindu ceremony), you are still eligible to receive a get if your spouse is Jewish by birth. This is because halacha (Jewish law) accepts a marriage as valid once it has been performed, even if it was made without signing a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract).
Why would someone need a "get?"
If a person was married to someone of the opposite sex under Jewish law, that person cannot remarry under Jewish law without a get. Without a get, s/he would still be considered married under Jewish law, even if s/he received a divorce under state law (civil law). Also, without a get, children from any future marriages would be considered mamzerim (illegitimate) under Jewish law. You can also read What are “mamzerim?” How are they treated within Jewish communities? for more information. However, a woman who gets divorced under state law (civil law) can still legally remarry under state law without a get from her former husband.
Many Reform rabbis are willing to perform a wedding for a person who only has a civil divorce from his or her former spouse, but it is necessary to get a get to remarry in the Orthodox and Conservative communities. Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews may still feel they need a get in order to conform to the strictest interpretation of the law.
Many non-religious Jews choose to marry under a chuppah (wedding canopy), sign a ketubah (marriage contract), and have a Jewish wedding performed by a rabbi or cantor. However, many non-religious Jews in heterosexual marriages may not realize that in order to remarry under Jewish law, they need to obtain a halachic (Jewish law) divorce. If you are a non-religious, unaffiliated, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jew who married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, you may wish to get a get so that you can remarry under Jewish law and have that marriage recognized by all denominations (streams) of Judaism. However, if this is not important to you, you may decide you do not need to pursue a get.
Orthodox authorities hold that Jews who were married in civil ceremonies must also receive a get in order to be able to remarry under Jewish law. If you were married under civil law, you may still want to get a get to conform with a strict interpretation of the law.
Are there any proactive measures a woman can take to avoid becoming an “agunah” in case the marriage ends?
One of the best ways to prevent the possibility of becoming an agunah (“chained woman”) is to include a “Lieberman Clause” in either a prenuptial agreement or a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract). A Lieberman Clause is named for Rabbi Lieberman, the Reform rabbi who first introduced it. This clause says that in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. You can learn more about including this kind of requirement in a prenuptial agreement on the Beth Din of America’s website The Prenup.
Many observant couples sign a prenuptial agreement agreeing to the terms of a future get. Increasingly Reform, Conservative, and modern Orthodox rabbis insist on the parties signing the prenup before officiating. Some of the Orthodox rabbinate argues that writing this kind of agreement into the ketubah is non-halachic (invalid under Jewish law), but many Orthodox rabbis would support writing this sort of clause into a prenuptial agreement. The Conservative rabbinate supports adding a Lieberman Clause into a ketubah or into a prenuptial agreement. A Jewish prenuptial agreement can be entirely separate from any secular (nonreligious) prenuptial agreement that the parties may or may not have, and can refer exclusively to the responsibility of both parties to give and accept a get should the need arise.
If a Lieberman Clause was not included in a ketubah or a prenuptial agreement, couples who are already married can sign a postnuptial agreement to include a Lieberman Clause. This may seem like an awkward step for a married couple to take. However, it is another way to safeguard both parties’ rights in the event of the marriage’s end.
How does a person get a “get?"
What is the process of getting a “get?”
Once a husband has agreed to give a get, the process is uncomplicated.
The husband has a sofer (scribe) write the sefer k’ritot (scroll of severance) in front of him and two witnesses. The wife does not have to be present at this process, though she typically is. Traditionally, the husband delivers the get to his wife and places it in her hands. Her ritual acceptance of the document validates the divorce. The wife then returns the document to the beit din (rabbinical court) where it is cut to make sure it can never be used again and it is then filed away. The beit din gives both the husband and the wife a p’tur (statement of release), which says that they have received a get and are free to remarry.
Note: An agreement with the beit din may have some effects on even a civil divorce case. For more information about the effects of an agreement with the beit din, please see What is a “beit din?”
If there is a history of domestic violence or other abuse, or in a case where distance makes it impossible for a woman to come to the beit din, the woman does not have to attend the beit din or accept the get from her husband directly. Instead, the beit din can appoint an agent for the husband to bring her the scroll of severance. Her physical acceptance of the document still validates the divorce.
Can a woman start the “get” process?
Traditionally, only a husband can start the “get” process. However, some streams of Judaism now allow women to ask a rabbi or rabbinical court to start the get process to convince a husband to give a get.
In order to begin the get process as a woman, you can speak to your rabbi. If you do not have a rabbi, you can ask a friend or relative who trusts his/her rabbi to refer you, or you can find one through the websites of the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructing Judaism, or the Orthodox Union of Rabbis. (WomensLaw is not affiliated with any of these websites.)
Generally, if a civil divorce has not been issued, the rabbi may first suggest that you and your partner seek counseling before pursuing a get. However, if you are in an abusive marriage, counseling may not be a safe option for you. Batterers’ behavior often will not change even with counseling. If you feel that counseling is not a good option, or that delaying the divorce could put you in danger, be sure to be talk to your rabbi about this.
If counseling is not an option, or if after counseling you do not want to continue the marriage, you can likely begin proceedings for a get.
Can a woman bring a friend or advocate for support to the “beit din” to get the “get?”
A woman can bring a friend or advocate to the beit din (rabbinical court) for support. Also, if a woman is afraid to attend the beit din because of domestic abuse, she can refuse to attend and have an agent for her husband deliver the sefer k’ritot (scroll of severance) to her.
What do I do if my husband is away or won't give me a “get?”
What if my husband refuses to give me a “get?” What can the wife do?
If your husband refuses to give you a get, speak to your rabbi. He or she may be able to convene a beit din (rabbinical court) and issue a seruv (decree) against your husband. Your rabbi may also be able to get the community to pressure him to give a get. You may also want to contact an organization which assists in Jewish divorce. These organizations provide women with legal counsel and with therapists trained to help victims of domestic abuse. You can also read What kinds of actions might a community take against a “mesarev get?” about what kinds of actions a community can take against a husband who refuses to give a get (mesarev get). You or other members of the community, may be able to get the community to take the actions described against your husband.
However, you may want to talk to a domestic violence advocate before participating in any community actions to try to make a plan that will keep you safe from your husband.
If my husband does not give me a “get,” can I still get a civil divorce?
If a husband refuses to give his wife a get, she can still get a civil (state law) divorce in all states.
Some states have specific protections for women whose husbands refuse to give a get. New York, for example, passed legislation referred to as the “Get Law,” which is in the Domestic Relations Law, section 253. This law says that when a party sues for civil divorce, it is the responsibility of both parties to ensure that there are no barriers to remarriage for either party —religious or otherwise—after the divorce. This effectively makes sure that a man cannot, under the laws of New York, refuse to give a woman a get.
Note: New York’s “Get Law” is currently being challenged in a case named Masri v. Masri. If you live New York, be sure to talk to your civil lawyer and your rabbi about if you can use this law to get a get, and how to ensure that your husband gives you a get.
If you live in a state other than New York, you may want to talk to your divorce lawyer to ask that s/he request that the judge make a similar order. Although many judges may not be willing to deal with this issue, a lawyer may be able to make legal arguments to convince the judge that ordering the husband to give a get is aligned with the purpose of a civil (state law) divorce. Go to our Finding a Lawyer page and choose your state from the drop-down menu for legal resources in your state. You can also find attorneys who work in get law on our Jewish Resources page.
What kinds of actions might a community take against a “mesarev get?”
A beit din (rabbinical court) will often issue a seruv (decree) against a husband who refuses to give a get (mesarev get). The seruv condemns the mesarev get for refusing to grant his wife a get. Seruvim (plural of seruv) are taken very seriously in observant Jewish communities of all streams. However, outside the State of Israel, seruvim have no legal force under state (civil) law.
Many Orthodox communities will place social or financial pressure upon a mesarev get to urge him to divorce his wife. Some communities will refuse to allow him to participate in the life of the synagogue; friends will cut off relations with him; and the members of many communities will refuse to do business with him. Jewish communities publish the names of mesarvei get (plural of mesarev get) in their newsletters, the local papers, and even on the Internet, guaranteeing that the man’s bad behavior is widely known. Often concerned members of a community will picket outside the home of a mesarev get or call for a boycott of his business or store. These tactics can be very effective.
How does domestic violence play into the issues of “mesarvei get” and “agunot?”
Refusing to give a get is a kind of abuse by itself. A man who refuses to give his wife a get is abusing his privileges under Jewish law and is seeking to control her in an abusive way. Often, when a man is unwilling to grant his wife a get, this is a continuation of controlling and abusive behaviors that were present in the couple’s marriage such as physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse.
Many Jewish women who have survived domestic violence feel shame because they believe that other Jewish husbands are not abusive and that they themselves have failed to fulfill their duty of creating shalom bayit (peace in the home). Remember that domestic violence is never the victim’s fault, no matter what your religion. Rates of domestic violence are about the same in the Jewish community as in the community at large, and they are the same across all income levels, all levels of education, all streams of Judaism, and all levels of observance. A Jewish woman is as likely as any other woman to become a victim of domestic violence. Like all victims, she does not deserve the abuse. She does deserve the right to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure her safety and happiness and the safety and happiness of her children and future children.
Many battei din (rabbinical courts) consider it a moral obligation to help an abused wife get away from her husband and receive a get. If your beit din (rabbinical court) is not proactive, you might consider contacting an organization that assists agunot (“chained women”) and victims of domestic violence on our Jewish Resources page.