The opening weekend of this month’s JFilm Festival ended with a healthy dose of Jewish debate on March 27 at the SouthSide Works Cinema after the screening of “Women Unchained,” when a panel of speakers unleashed their opinions on the documentary’s topic: religious men blackmailing their wives by refusing to sign a Jewish divorce document, called a get.
The packed crowd listened attentively and asked pointed questions to the panel of Darryle Gillman, of the Agunah Project and whose story inspired the film; Beverly Siegel, the director of “Women Unchained”; Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus of Rodef Shalom Congregation and president of the Abraham Geiger College in Germany; and Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation.
In the documentary, Siegel chronicles the struggles of Orthodox women who have fought to obtain a get, the document that would make them religiously divorced and able to move on with their lives. The derelict husbands, none of whom are interviewed, are revealed to have blackmailed their wives for possessions and money with the support of their local rabbinate. The film breaks down the expenses of one case: including assets all but stolen by one featured woman’s husband, obtaining her get cost over $400,000.
Get extortion, the film explains, is a growing problem with complex implications for even nonreligious couples in Israel, where Orthodox religious policies are applied to the entire population.
“As far as doing something [to alter the cross-denominational necessity of a get in Israel] that will be recognized by the Orthodox rabbinic court in Jerusalem, my only comment to that is ‘forget it,’ ” said Jacob, referencing work he had done with multi-denominational rabbis to reach an agreement on divorce practices.
Wasserman stressed that the policy isn’t the problem, but rather the people wrongly implementing it are to blame.
“Jewish law remains the future of the Jewish people,” said Wasserman. “It is holy. It is beautiful. But it’s also in the hands of human beings. Just as you can take a hammer and build with it … Habitat for Humanity, homes for people, the same hammer can be used in the hands of someone to destroy lives. When that happens, we have to find a way to respond.”
The most feasible solution to get extortion, said the panelists, is for a couple to sign an explicit prenuptial agreement preventing such abuse.
“We don’t like talking about prenuptial agreements because a marriage is supposed to be beautiful and romantic,” said Wasserman, “and it should be. For my own children, I’ll tell them to sign it.”
But, further, Wasserman said that the problem extends beyond legal documents. The get, after all, is one itself; it must be given by the husband to grant a divorce.
“We are not doing a good enough job teaching our children how to be menschen and realizing there are certain things we just don’t do,” he said.
Siegel described the mixed reactions she got when explaining the documentary to people, which range from, “‘This problem only affects the Orthodox,’ which isn’t true,” she said, to, “‘Oh, that’s so sad.’ It is sad. It’s also a terrible crime against another person. We can’t leave it at sad.”
Siegel spoke to the resistance of many in the Haredi community to sign prenuptial agreements, thereby allowing for a window to possible get extortion.
“The reason you get from the Haredi community is, ‘It’s just not something we do,’ ” she said. “Well why not? Your community has the problem, why don’t you do it? There was a time not long ago when people didn’t talk about cancer, or disabilities. We have to expose this problem to daylight to foster solutions.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)