How Resisting Rabbis Can Be A Religious Duty

by Tanya Zion-Waldoks

Maya (37), an accomplished professional and mother of two, married the love of her life. She met Avi in college and they got engaged soon after moving in together. As most Jewish Israelis do, they fretted about the guest list, DJ and catering but didn’t give a second thought to the content or consequences of their wedding ceremony. Simply doing “what our grandparents did,” their wedding was officiated by a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox controlled Rabbinate and automatically registered by the State (there is no civil marriage or civil divorce in Israel – each citizen is bound to the laws of their religious affiliation).Zion-Waldoks_image2

Six years into the marriage and two children later, the marriage had fallen apart. Avi showed little interest in his family, spending their joint earnings on his gambling addiction, and becoming abusive whenever confronted about it. Eventually he stopped coming home altogether and Maya was left to fend for herself and her children. Distraught and overwhelmed, she filed for divorce in the State-sponsored Rabbinic Courts (her only legal recourse). Maya’s case was argued in front of three ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic Judges (Dayanim) who, appointed in a back-room political deal rather than on merit, understood little of her secular, modern and Westernized lifestyle. The only other woman in the courtroom was Maya’s representative, a Rabbinic Advocate. Rabbinic Advocates are Orthodox women trained in Halakhah (Jewish law) and certified to represent in the Rabbinic Courts, a revolutionary profession for women. These advocates rigorously abide by religious laws and belong to pious communities while at the same time engaging in highly politicized gender resistance in both religious and civil public spheres.

Maya’s divorce proceedings grew increasingly futile. Court sessions were few and far between. When they did finally set a court date, the Rabbinic court seemed content to rely on her husband’s empty declarations that he sought reconciliation with his wife. Eventually, Maya’s Rabbinic Advocate convinced the court that Avi was neglecting his family, and had even started a new life by having a child with his most recent girlfriend. While Maya could not remarry or even have sexual relations with another man, there were no legal consequences to Avi’s infidelity or his extra-marital child (had Maya had a child out of wedlock it could have been blacklisted by the State as a bastard, a “mamzer”, barred from marrying into the Jewish people for several generations).

Though the court clearly held Avi responsible for destroying the marriage and expressed dismay at his immoral behavior, the rabbis applied no legal sanctions to coerce him into giving Maya a “get” (a Jewish writ of divorce). According to Halakhah, a get must be granted willingly (by the man) and, though myriad legal mechanisms for freeing women from unwanted marriages exist and could be implemented, their emancipatory potential is rarely realized. Current extremist tendencies in the Rabbinic Courts repeatedly uphold male privilege, and Judges claim they fear applying “improper force” would gain a husband’s assent against his “authentic free will”. Indeed, the judges preferred to garner Avi’s good will simply by asking: “What would you like in return?” Avi happily obliged, announcing he would willingly grant a “Get” if Maya paid him a huge sum he had accrued in gambling debts, and relinquished her half of their shared apartment (which had already been accorded her in an agreement reached by the couple in the parallel civil Family Courts).

Zion-Waldoks_image1Refusing to surrender her rights and peddle her children’s financial future, Maya rejected this so-called “solution”. Thereupon, the rabbis agreed that she was the cause of her own imprisonment in the marriage. Had she been less obstinate (and listened less to her Rabbinic Advocate who fought for her rights and therefore warranted the derogatory label “feminist”), they retorted, she could have instantly freed herself from this marriage. Seven years after filing for divorce, Maya is still married to a recalcitrant husband who has since moved on with his life while she remains an Agunah (literally – a chained woman); her freedom is dependent on the good will of her husband and the Rabbinic Courts.

The details of Maya and Avi’s story are fictionalized; however this reality is far from imaginary. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews, my article analyzes the narratives of Rabbinic Advocates, lawyers, and other activists, who publicly contest the plight of Agunah women employing a wide range of educational, legal, lobbying and advocacy strategies. Most interesting is that many of these activists are themselves Orthodox women, committed to the religious institutions, values and practices represented by the very Rabbinic Courts that they critique. I identify how the activists’ political agency – their ability to step up and into the public sphere to champion Agunah rights and resist Rabbinic authorities, derives from their devotion to religion, not its rejection.

Conceptualizing these religious women’s political agency as Devoted Resistance, I characterize its four modes: Modest politicians (who creatively deploy traditional gendered concepts of modesty to fuel and legitimize their “improper” public activism); Reluctant activists (who feel compelled to take action out of concern and compassion thereby fulfilling a religious duty to step in where the Rabbinic leadership has failed); Religious reformers (who appropriate moral authority to take corrective action to fix Jewish law); and Visionaries (proud pioneers who embody alternatives, expressing feminist resistance as a form of belonging to Orthodox society). Beyond the activists’ capacity to re-interpret religious texts and meanings, what all these forms of agency share is a relational aspect. The women’s connectedness (their cultural embeddedness and devotion) and their “relational-autonomy” skills spur activism and enable resistance. These uniquely potent forms of devoted resistance power the struggle for Agunah rights which calls to redress gender inequality in marriage and divorce in modern day “Jewish and democratic” Israel.

Tanya Zion-Waldoks is completing her dissertation in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, where she teaches. Her article, “Politics of Devoted Resistance: Agency, Feminism, and Religion Among Orthodox Agunah Activists in Israel,” is published in the February 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.

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