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Legal Information: Religious

Abuse in the Jewish Community

Updated : 
August 7, 2018

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.