In precedent-making divorce case, rabbinical court frees woman after 21 years

A rabbinic court enabled the divorce of a woman who had been trapped in a marriage with a recalcitrant husband for two decades.

By: Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

In an innovative interpretation of  Jewish law, an independent rabbinic court found a way of freeing an Orthodox Jewish woman from her binding marriage.

Zvia Gorodetsky had been unable to officially divorce her husband for 21 years because he refused to cooperate with the divorce proceedings.

This state of affairs is known in Jewish law as being “chained”, or “aguna” in Hebrew, to a husband. According to Jewish law, an aguna is not permitted to remarry.

In what is being billed as an “unprecedented” step, three rabbis gathered to form an ad hoc court and nullify the marriage.

Gorodetsky, 53, is a mother of  four. Her husband’s abuse, which included throwing acid on her, cause her to miscarry.

Gorodetsky was the longest-suffering aguna, or chained woman, currently in Israel.

Two Orthodox colleagues who prefer to remain anonymous joined Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber to rule on the case. Sperber, a British-born professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University who is also a recognized judge of Jewish law, won the Israel Prize in 1992 for Jewish studies.

The rabbis retroactively annulled the marriage based on the husband’s pre-existing personality disorder that was known to others but not to Gorodetsky. This made the marriage “a mistaken agreement” according to Jewish law and therefore invalid from the start.

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Israeli state religious courts will not retroactively annul marriages, and therefore the Chief Rabbinate is likely to reject the validity of the annulment. However, this ruling could lead to more private courts for divorce, just as there are now private kashruth organizations and private conversion authorities challenging the hegemony of the Chief Rabbinate and gaining popular support in the modern religious community.

For their part, the Chief Rabbinate, which enjoys broad powers in Israel, jailed Gorodetsky’s husband for the last 18 years without any furloughs for his refusal to grant her a divorce.

However, according to the director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which helped convene the private court, this shows that the current tactics used by the system simply don’t work.

“Zvia’s case proves that using sanctions against recalcitrant husbands like imprisonment and shaming is not the right way to free women from their chained status,”Dr. Susan Weiss declared.

Gorodetsky is just relieved to be free.

“After many years I received the calm and peace my soul needs,” she was quoted in the Yedioth Aharonoth paper as saying.

“I always felt like a wounded and bleeding soul, and I always felt that there was no justice here….and now it’s time for me to get my life back.”