The unique circumstances of Jewish law as interpreted by those who practice Orthodox Judaism can make divorce an extremely difficult predicament for women in the religion. For starters, only the husband can grant a divorce with a document called a “get.” While a woman can still seek a legal divorce, without the “get” she is still married in the eyes of her religion, even years after a civil divorce is granted.
Someone unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism may not understand the gravity of this scenario. Without the husband’s consent to a religious divorce, and without a “get,” an Orthodox Jewish woman cannot remarry or have more children. Without a religious divorce being granted, any remarriage is seen as adultery and can result in her being shunned from her Orthodox community.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not uncommon and women put in this predicament have come to be known as “chained women” (“agunot” in Hebrew), stuck for years, unable to move on with their lives. This problem does not impact the man in the same way. Jewish law has for centuries allowed men to have multiple wives, and so their additional partners and children do not suffer the same consequences as the first wife. Because of this, men may not feel the same urgency to pursue a religious divorce.
What makes this problem unique and difficult to alleviate from a legal perspective is the religious nature of the issue. The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents secular courts from becoming involved in matters pertaining to religion, thus, there is no clear-cut legal solution.
A man may deny his wife a religious divorce for a number of reasons, many of which can appear manipulative – whether the man is seeking monetary compensation, a particular settlement outcome, custody agreement, or is simply refusing a get out of ill will. A religious court will sometimes step in and rule that a husband grant a get, but this is not a given in many cases.
While the religious nature of the problem makes it more difficult to combat by legal means, if you are an Orthodox woman, there are steps that you can take to ensure a religious and civil divorce be available options. If possible, procure a get before a civil divorce. This will limit the husband from using the get as leverage to unfairly negotiate a better civil settlement for himself.
If this isn’t possible, there are other ways a divorce attorney may be able to help. New York has two laws that attempt to prevent these situations: the 1992 get law, which gives a judge the ability to award a greater share of property to the wife, and the 1983 get law, which denies a civil divorce to those who do not agree to grant the get. While these laws certainly help, they are not the last word on the issue. Some Orthodox communities believe that a get must be granted free of coercion and see legal intervention as such.
One newly emerging solution is a specific prenuptial agreement where both parties agree that any marital dispute will be decided by binding arbitration and also provides monetary compensation to the wife for each day that she spends waiting for a get to be granted.