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Bringing Dignity to the Agunot Court Experience

When divorce is mutually desired, the religious court most often easily facilitates the dissolution of a marriage. But when there is abuse and gett-refusal, the courts fail the most vulnerable: agunot and their children. 
[additional-authors]
February 10, 2023
Protest in London against a Get refuser. Photo by Laura ben David

Divorce is a fact of life. Painful divorce that drags on for years leaving individuals traumatized and feeling abused by the Jewish religious system should not be. We—Chochmat Nashim, and other organizations around the Jewish world who work with agunot, women chained in marriage—see the crisis surrounding Jewish divorce as one that can and must be solved in our lifetimes for the integrity of Judaism and the safety of our children.

Let’s start at the local level. What happens when our religious courts fall short of their responsibilities? To whom do we turn when procedures, standards and proceedings do not bring justice but pain, abuse and helplessness?

Consider these testimonies by women who used the Rabbinical Court of California for divorce and responded to our survey about their experiences.

“This process truly turned me away from Orthodoxy. I was treated so poorly … I left with a list of people I could no longer marry and a waiting period to remarry and my ex left with a handshake and a bracha that he should find his bashert [soulmate] and build a bayit ne’eman [religious home].”

“They asked my ex-husband at the gett session why he was willing to give the gett before finalizing the civil case. [They said,] ‘You can use it as leverage in case she tries to take away the kids.’ I was furious that they would even put that idea into his head. I never planned to withhold anything and we were doing mediation.”

“It felt like secondary abuse of a rape victim.”

“My overall experience with the RCC was sad. I left with a gett Baruch Hashem [thank God] but I also left feeling very far away from God’s Torah. This cannot be the way Hashem [God] intended for the gett process to be … It should feel empowering and not threatening and unsafe.“

“I didn’t end up having a get for over eight years and they took money but didn’t help me get it. He was violent and I ended Up in a shelter with my child and they wouldn’t help.”

“They were not willing to hear me ask for a gett and why I need a gett, unless I signed a binding financial and legal agreement with them online before coming.”

When divorce is mutually desired, the religious court most often easily facilitates the dissolution of a marriage. But when there is abuse and gett-refusal, the courts fail the most vulnerable: agunot and their children.

Often, when we talk about the “aguna crisis,” people shrug: “What can we do? It’s Jewish law.”

But in a survey of hundreds of women and men who experienced Jewish divorce around the world, we found that (before we even get to halacha) batei din [rabbinic courts] lack transparency, have no oversight and suffer from a lack of standards, making the process painful and often confusing. Such aspects have nothing to do with halacha and much to do with professionalism and efficiency.

As a result of this survey, Chochmat Nashim, and other organizations created the website Rate My Beit Din, where people can review their rabbinic court experiences and others can educate themselves about the available courts based on those reviews. Currently, the site assesses the way the courts make information available, ease of contact, and collates reviews of personal experiences with the court, as well as how long they waited for a resolution.

From the reviews and interviews we conducted in person, it became clear that rabbis and judges must be able to recognize and name abuse of all kinds: physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual. Many areas and manifestations of mental illnesses were not understood, leading rabbis to try to heal marriages that were past saving and, worse, not recognizing sophisticated and psychological delay tactics crafted by the recalcitrant spouse. In far too many cases, judges waited years before declaring a man a refuser (if at all). In some courts, the judges are sensitive, but the processes in place are deficient, leaving ample room for gett-refusers to manipulate the system.

We are not here to shame, but to improve the system—a goal we believe the judges share. To increase transparency and the overall court experience, the site contains a “best practices” page recommending shorter response times, transparency about costs, suggested practices during proceedings, and professional training in domestic abuse, addiction, narcissism and more.

We are not here to shame, but to improve the system—a goal we believe the judges share.

Jews are commanded to create courts and systems of law. Indeed, even while in the desert, Moshe spent his days arbitrating disputes. In the Torah,  we are told, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”). By tackling the shortcomings of the court system, we can achieve this directive, together.

If you or someone you know has experienced the beit din for divorce, please fill out a review. The more reviews that are collected, the better the data will be, and the more people we can help. In addition, everyone can encourage their local religious court to increase oversight and transparency and to be in touch with RateMyBeitDin.com to work together to improve the process for its most vulnerable players, because what happens at the court, and as a result of its proceedings, is far too important to ignore.


Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Co founder of Chochmat Nashim, she raises awareness of damaging policies in the Orthodox community and works on tools and solutions to combat them. Originally from Lakewood, NJ she lives in Israel with her family.

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