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.