What happens when a Venusian tries to divorce in Mars?

We’ve all heard the phrase and possibly read the book by the same name, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The concept is that men and women have a completely different way of communicating and viewing the world. Whenever I’m inclined to think that men and women don’t think so differently after all, I just need to have one conversation with my husband and sons to realize the folly of that train of thought.

After dinner on a long Friday night, my family often retires to our smushy living room sofa to talk about the past week’s events. At one point, the conversation turned to the Tamar Epstein case. My husband stated his opinion that the main reason the original beis din didn’t feel they could coerce her husband into giving a get, nor nullify the marriage, was because she had left him once and then returned. Apparently the fact that Epstein had felt a change of heart at one point, weakened the case that her marriage to her husband was untenable. Her choice to return, even the one time, meant that the conditions for nullifying the marriage without a get couldn’t be met.

Of course, I quickly gave an impassioned response against this line of reasoning. For example, imagine being a newly married orthodox woman in your early twenties. After a brief period of cohabitation, you are greatly bothered by several recently discovered personality traits and habits of your new husband. So bothered, in fact, that the prospect of remaining married to this man throws you into despair. You reluctantly approach your parents, who are freshly in debt thanks to wedding expenses, and tearfully tell them that you want a divorce. What is their most likely reaction?

If you have marriageable age children, and your first response would be, “Of course, dear! We only want you to be happy. We’ll make an appointment with a beis din tomorrow for an annulment and you can move in with us as soon as we can pack your things,” you are truly an understanding and supportive parent.

Most of us however, would want a bit more information about the specific nature of the problems. Marriage counselling would probably be suggested. Perhaps anecdotes about our own first difficult months of marriage would be tossed about. In short, we didn’t take out second mortgages, max out credit cards, and hit up local lending gemachs requiring countless post-dated repayment checks in advance, only for you to get a divorce a few months after the wedding! So suck it up sister!!!

Well, I hope I wouldn’t be that harsh, but the point remains that any newly married young woman having difficulty adjusting to marriage would most likely be urged to carry on and work through it, unless she was suffering violent abuse. The fact that such a woman would leave, only to return under the guidance of her parents, rabbis, relatives, and friends, isn’t an indication that she went back purely of her own volition and because she had a change of heart.

However, according to both my oldest son and husband, the problem has to do with purchasing a horse.

Not being a farmer and never having had the need to purchase a horse, I was unaware of this principle in helping to determine whether or not a marriage can be annulled. Apparently it applies in the Epstein case and those like it where the wife attempts to “return the horse.”

My husband and son, enjoying an academic argument, explained it like this – say you are travelling a distance too far to walk and you need a horse. You reach a small village looking for a sturdy horse to buy, but there is only one horse for sale (my son added this detail to illustrate that even if you bought the horse under duress because there were no other horses available (like the wife being forced/compelled to return to her husband) the principle would still apply). Outwardly, the horse looks pretty good, and so you buy it. You saddle up the horse, and begin your journey.

Things are going well, until midway through the journey, when all of the horse’s hair begins to fall off. This is concerning, and surely a sign of some sort of disease, but as the horse is still moving steadily along, and it’s a good few hours ride back to the village where you bought the horse, you continue on your way. A few hours later, the horse begins limping. You are now almost at your final destination, and despite the lameness of the horse, patch it up as best you can and continue on.

Throughout the trials and tribulations of the journey, you have developed a fondness for the horse. You house it in your barn, feed it, and nurse the horse back to health. The horse’s hair never grows back, but on the flip side you have a cool bald horse that you never have to waste time brushing (I threw in that benefit myself). Although the horse’s health is always in a frail state, you care for it for the next few years, until one day, its original owner visits your town. At that point, if you decide to take the horse’s first owner to a beis din to sue for damages or the original amount paid for the horse, you would be denied.

You indicated your acceptance of the horse and its health issues by not raising those matters when you first discovered them. The fact that you didn’t immediately return the horse, but instead kept it and cared for it, means that you accepted the animal, flaws and all. It’s too late for a refund.

So it is when determining whether or not a woman can petition to have her marriage annulled. If she leaves her husband, but returns even once, she indicates her acceptance of him, flaws and all. It’s too late for a refund.

I argued valiantly that a woman’s heart doesn’t work that way. That being influenced by others to return to the marriage certainly does play a role in whether or not her return to the marital home counts as accepting the man. I argued that women don’t view marriage as monetary transactions. I was told that that’s what kiddushin is – a monetary transaction – and so that’s how the dissolution of kiddushin is handled – as a court would decide upon monetary disputes.

I argued that women don’t need men for their financial support anymore.  For a woman, marriage isn’t about money, but about her heart, her happiness, and her emotional well-being. I was told that when it comes to halachic decisions about divorce and annulment, they are dealt with in the same vein as other matters of acquisition, including horses.

Later that night, my husband tentatively asked me, “You do realize that I was not on the beis din deciding Tamar Epstein’s divorce case, right (he’s not a rabbi)? You do know that I had nothing whatsoever to do with her not receiving a get or a universally accepted annulment, don’t you?”

Maybe I argued a little bit too vehemently? What can I say? When a Venusian tries to divorce in Mars, we are arguing our case in a completely different language and from a completely different set of laws than the Martian court can understand – and vice versa.

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Is abuse the only way out?

I received an email today from someone asking if I would speak out about a recent case that’s been burning up the blogosphere about a former agunah who received a “getless get.” Tamar Epstein made headlines a few years back by being one of the first women to use social media to attract attention about her recalcitrant husband to shame him into giving her a get.

ORA and a few other prominent rabbanim took on her cause and eventually declared her to be a free woman. Conflicting reports ensued, first an announcement by ORA that Epstein had received her get, and then other reports that she hadn’t. The matter eventually slid off the media radar, and Ms. Epstein resumed life outside of the headlines until recently. Apparently, Ms. Epstein recently remarried, and the whole controversy over whether or not she was in fact, free to do so, has erupted. Certain rabbinic leaders in the haredi world have declared her marriage to be adulterous and any future children from the relationship to be mamzerim.

The argument, as so many arguments regarding women in the Jewish world do, has shifted away from the woman at the center of the controversy, and become focused on the warring rabbinic leaders who hold different opinions on whether or not she should have been allowed to remarry.

This extends to what I think was the initial problem in this case – instead of considering the opinion of the woman who was trapped in an untenable and loveless (on her part) marriage, the only opinions considered were those of her ex-husband who didn’t want the divorce, and the rabbis on her beis din, who didn’t feel there were grounds to force the divorce. If Tamar Epstein had been granted the get she sought out initially, there wouldn’t have been any halachic contortions and loopholes needed, it would have been a straightforward ending to a marriage that wasn’t working – because if a marriage isn’t working for one partner, it really isn’t working for both.

I have heard that her reasons for wanting the divorce weren’t “divorce-worthy.” Say what? Only the partners in the marriage can determine what they can and can’t live with, no one else. I have heard time and time again, that it’s a good thing that Hashem made it so that women aren’t the ones who can give a get, because otherwise they would constantly be divorcing their husbands. That isn’t the best endorsement of Jewish husbands nor a wife’s marital satisfaction expectancy, is it? I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a jab about women’s emotional inconstancy, but at a deeper level, isn’t it about male insecurity?

There is no doubt that men controlling get giving is a way of keeping women in unhappy marriages. Women like Ms. Epstein, who are honest about the fact that they just can’t live with their husband’s idiosyncrasies, or that there simply is no communication, emotional connection, or meeting of the minds must worry that their appeal for a get will be refused. Simply being in an empty and loveless marriage doesn’t seem to be enough for many rabbis to require a husband to give a get.   It seems that nothing short of a man whaling on his wife’s face with a closed fist on a regular basis is enough for some rabbis to force a recalcitrant husband to grant his wife a divorce.

This might be an unpopular supposition, but I have heard some men bitterly reflect that while they were married their wives were constantly praising what good fathers and people they were, but the minute divorce proceedings began they were painted as abusers of both their wives and children. For those men, my guess is that they and their ex-wives live in certain communities beholden to local rabbinic courts where unless there are allegations of physical or severe verbal and emotional abuse, the court won’t force an unwilling husband to give a get. Therefore, since lack of fulfillment, loneliness, and general unhappiness with the marriage isn’t considered valid grounds for divorce, allegations of abuse are brought up as a means of escape.

In no way am I saying that all marital abuse allegations brought up in divorce cases are false, but I am saying that in a court system run by men who mainly seek to keep Jewish marriages together, and the notion of breaking up over boredom, loneliness, or general lack of fulfillment being thought of as frivolous and insufficient grounds for release – in some cases desperate times might call for desperate measures. At the very least, exaggerations of personality quirks, social awkwardness, anxiety issues, or any other undesirable trait in their husband might be over emphasized because that is the only way for a woman to gain her freedom in a system that doesn’t seem to feel that “love,” that dirty little four letter word, is a requirement for marriage.

Sure, it might be a 21st century secular notion, the idea that a couple should love each other before the marriage even takes place. In many orthodox circles, that idea is downright filthy. In more modern orthodox segments, love is only appropriate and possible after marriage, and in some right wing segments, it’s never appropriate even after marriage. Therefore, in some circles, a woman bringing up lack of love as a cause for divorce will be laughed out of the courtroom. Maybe the husband will be told to buy her a trinket, or compliment her food more often, or make sure not to skip the Friday night mitzvah.

Not being in love isn’t cause for divorce, so Ms. Epstein and other women like her don’t stand a chance of having rabbis support their request for a get. Until women’s feelings are taken seriously, and until their desires and wishes are paramount in determining whether or not they wish to stay in a marriage, we can look forward to other controversial solutions and endorsements being sought (most likely at no small financial expense) toward obtaining freedom.

Is this seat taken?

In 2014, the RCA formed a committee to review its conversion processes in the wake of the Freundel scandal. The panel was comprised of 6 men and 5 women, with two of the women being converts. When the committee’s 22 page report to improve the RCA’s Geirus Protocol Standards came out this summer, The Jewish Week quoted RCA executive vice president Rabbi Mark Dratch as saying that the report marked the beginning of a new era –

“This is the first time the stakeholders themselves are deeply involved in the process,” he said, referring to the converts on the committee as well as the 835 Jews by choice and conversion candidates who were surveyed. “We learned the most from looking at this through their eyes.””

What in the heck happened between July and November?

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

New era!

New era who?

New era is nowhere-a to be found when it comes to recognizing women in clergy positions by the RCA.

Just when we thought modern orthodox rabbis were ready to give female stakeholders a seat at the table in shaping future policies, we have been told there are none available for those with an XX chromosome.

Not having women involved in their decision-making process to ban women from any position or title resembling that of a rabbi was neither modern nor orthodox. In fact, people are coming forward with stories from the ultra-orthodox camps discussing the esteemed spiritual leadership roles women have in some right wing communities, functioning in almost every way as rabbis, except without the title.

Current Maharat student and blogger, Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, succinctly introduced herself in her blog post, My Maharat Life

“….I am passionate about working in diverse Jewish communities and in helping people engage their Judaism. I am an Orthodox Jew (without any modifiers). I am no less an Orthodox woman or a Jewish communal leader because of my desire to combine them.

I cannot speak for any of my colleagues at Yeshivat Maharat, or any other institution training Orthodox women for leadership positions. I can only speak for myself. And for me, being at Yeshivat Maharat makes it possible to live my dreams while also being true to who I am.

This is my Maharat life.

I heard my call and I am here. Hineni.”

Why wasn’t a person like Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez contacted for input? Even if women don’t have an official vote at the RCA table, isn’t the future role of women within modern orthodoxy worth at least as much time and effort spent on the Geirus Protocol Standards?

Shouldn’t there have been a committee made up of say, 6 men and 5 women, two of the women being Maharats, to give their perspectives? Shouldn’t at least 835 Jewish women who belong to modern orthodox synagogues led by RCA rabbis have been surveyed for their opinions?  Shouldn’t the process have resulted in an extensive report of at least 22 pages?

I think many of us are waiting for a time when there can be direct communication between rabbis making communal policies and the stakeholders those policies affect.  There seems to be a caricature in place of the feminist as a smug, man-hating, self-important, pompous, yet ignorant woman.  If women currently employed as orthodox clergy, studying to receive a form of ordination, or women who simply believe that their sisters should be allowed to achieve their potential would have the ability to speak directly with rabbinic decision makers, the stereotypes would fall away.

Face to face, people are just people, each as individual as their own fingerprints. With direct communication, the fear that leads to derision, dismissal, or even hatred has a chance to disintegrate.  Both sides can work together to forge a path that can take everyone where they want to go with the common goal of staying true to themselves and to the halachic blueprint provided by the Torah.

That will truly be the mark of a new era.

HarediFem – The Rise of the Challah Bake

One might think that while modern orthodox feminists are fighting for the right to don tefillin and tallisim, pray with a Torah at the Kotel, come up with creative solutions to free agunot, or receive smicha equivalency degrees, women from right wing orthodox sectors are shaking their heads and refusing to participate in progress.

On the contrary, American haredi women find themselves in an unusual position these days. At levels surpassing modern orthodox women, haredi women are now socialized to be the sole or primary breadwinners of their households. Young haredi men are expected to learn full time in kollel until either parental support dries up or their own dwindling resources demand that they look for work. Young women, on the other hand, are encouraged to get an education and find a profession that will support a growing family, indefinitely if possible.

In other words, haredi women control the purse strings in a way that even most modern orthodox women don’t. For the most part, both spouses in modern orthodox homes are college educated. In keeping with overall American statistics, most women make less money than men, especially when taking into consideration that many modern orthodox women gravitate toward traditionally female dominated professions that typically pay less money (teaching, social work, nursing, speech therapy, physical therapy, etc).

In the haredi world, similar career paths mean that even though women are often the primary bread winners (perhaps with heavy subsidization from parents), they still aren’t making big bucks. Even so, one of the complaints feminists had in the 1970s was the financial chains that husbands use to control wives in marriage. If that’s the case, it would seem logical that same would work in reverse. If women control the cash flow and the allocation of funds, wouldn’t that give them control over their husbands? Additionally, if a large source of communal tzedaka money is coming from households where women are the earners, wouldn’t that give women greater control within the community at large? Doesn’t money talk?

In my mind, I can picture teachers of older girls exhorting them not to hold their financial advantage over their future husbands. Everything they earn is for the family and it’s only through Hashem’s kindness that they have the ability to earn salaries, a privilege that can be taken away at any moment if a wife becomes haughty, stingy, or controlling concerning her paycheck. Additionally, the true provider will always be her husband, because it is only in the merit of his learning that she even has a job and can bring home a salary. So, even though she is the one who works, her husband is still the main breadwinner.

However, it would be nearly impossible for haredi women to go to college, work at internships, and enter the workforce without having some exposure to feminist ideas. A common response to feminist concepts seems to be derision; a derision that stems from defensiveness. After all, if you look at some of the main objections feminism has regarding male dominated cultures, fundamentalist religion carries all the markers of perceived misogyny, including orthodox Judaism. For orthodox women who never thought of themselves as oppressed, and in fact, might think of themselves as having an elevated status in their world, having other women slap the “oppressed” label on them is galling and offensive.

Hence, the rise of HarediFem, or haredi feminism. While not all women engaging in haredi female empowerment consider themselves to be either haredi or feminists, I am referring to women who attempt to expand their voice and control in the orthodox world within the parameters of activities approved for women. We are seeing a greater public display of the three mitzvot thought to be unique for women – candle lighting, taking challah, and tznius. The focus on doing women’s mitzot is a way to flex female muscles to positively change the world for the better.

Actually, the three special mitzvot for women are candle lighting, taking challah, and taharas hamishpacha, but out of modesty, we are unlikely to see full page advertisements asking women to do a few extra bedikas on behalf of klal yisroel, or to make sure to bring in at least one shailah to a rabbi this month in the merit of the tragedies happening in Israel. Therefore, the mitzvah of modesty is raised to a place of prominence in terms of public discussion and display along with challah baking and candlelighting.

For example, cutting wigs shorter to prevent further tragedies such as the Har Nof massacre

sheitelsImplying that wearing tznius maternity clothing can prevent miscarriage, stillbirth, or other tragedies that can occur with mother or infant-

maternityWomen shaping the future of their community by attending a community wide meeting about current and new standards of modesty for women –

tznius meetingA contest for little girls to dress modestly in the merit of defending Eretz Yisroel

ice creamCommunity wide challah baking events for women and girls to share the experience of helping to create “the gift of Shabbos” –

challah bakeDisplaying car magnets advertising the power of candle lighting as a way to fight terrorism –

candles fightAdditionally, there are always lectures for women on topics such as parenting, how to create and maintain shalom bayis in the home, the power of prayer, how women can hasten the arrival of Moshiach, etc. There are also community wide women’s tehillim sessions during community crises; the power of many voices thought to have more sway than one in seeking a reversal of bad fortune. Women’s fundraising events happen on a frequent basis as well, with several gatherings happening every week in larger communities. All of these activities provide an active social outlet for women, giving a sense of both camaraderie and the empowerment that comes with the belief of doing something that can produce positive change.

Although these activities don’t culturally conform to secular feminist ideas of empowerment, nor to the ideals of feminist progress for many modern orthodox women, many haredi women feel differently. I have heard haredi women wax poetic about how powerful the prayers of women can be. I have heard haredi women speak about the sense of fulfillment they have in their roles as Jewish wives, mothers, daughters, friends, and spiritual beings. They don’t feel powerless, left out, or under the control of the men in their lives. Some truly feel that a position of public leadership is beneath them, as their honor is to be private, much like the Ark of the Covenant was hidden inside the Holy of Holies.

Every woman’s idea of empowerment is different, and every woman’s struggle is different, which is why there has been a backlash forming against “white feminism” from women of color (misogynoir), and even more recently, an accusation that the Suffragette history has been white-washed, forgetting the contributions of women of all races to achieving the vote. There has been push back against the idea that the problems of privileged white upper class women represent the problems of all women.

This also extends into the idea that privileges enjoyed by women in different cultures might not be considered privileges by the women in surrounding dominant cultures, who are quick to condemn those foreign ideas as being sexist.

I feel as if the modern orthodox feminist culture borrows largely from white feminism. The movement doesn’t always take into consideration that the cultural differences of our haredi counterparts might have more to do with different ideas of empowerment. What might make a modern orthodox woman feel dis-empowered, might be a prime example of feminist achievement to a haredi woman.

We can talk about what we do and don’t want for ourselves, but when do the lines of discrimination and racism get crossed when we demand that other Jewish women want the same things we do? We all come from different places, travel different roads, and have different outlooks on life. If a woman says she is happy with her lot, who am I to tell her otherwise?

Playing by the rules still won’t get you anywhere

In a reaction to the RCA’s recent statement banning women from Jewish clergy positions, JOFA promoted a petition and issued an advocacy statement expressing its disappointment and reaffirming its commitment to higher education and spiritual leadership opportunities for women within orthodoxy.

One of the bright spots that JOFA clung to in the RCA’s statement was:

“JOFA welcomes the RCA’s recent reaffirmation of the importance of women’s advanced Torah learning and communal leadership. We note with particular pleasure the RCA’s explicit endorsement of some of the wonderful programs that train and teach outstanding women scholars and leaders, including Nishmat and GPATS.”

Nishmat is the seminary founded and headed by Rabbanit Chana Henkin that runs a course of study to train and certify women to be taharas hamashicha advisors, known at Yoatzot Halacha. The GPATS program is the The Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study run by Stern College for Women.

In its statement, the RCA specifically mentioned those two programs, and seemingly gave its endorsement to both (as opposed to the Yeshivat Maharat program which it does not endorse):

“This resolution does not concern or address non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha (advisors on Jewish law), community scholars, Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study, and non-rabbinic school teachers,” the resolution concludes. “So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as “Maharat” is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable.””

However, in an article on the Cross-Currents blog, RCA Exectutive Committee member Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, clarifies that the mentioning of Nishmat and GPATS was not meant as an endorsement by the RCA. Rabbi Gordimer stresses that he doesn’t speak for the RCA in the article, but is expressing his personal opinion and observations on the recent proclamation. In his article, Rabbi Gordimer says –

“The drafters of the resolution sought to restrict the focus to the ordination of women, and not to address the propriety of Yoatzot Halacha and other women’s positons and halachic training programs. Unfortunately, despite this intent, many have construed the wording of the resolution as actually endorsing the Yoatzot programs and so forth. Although this seems to be a legitimate reading of the resolution, this was not at all its intent. The drafters purposefully did not want to convey an opinion about the propriety of Yoatzot programs and the like, as the RCA has no official position on the matter, and many RCA members, this writer included, are not in favor of such programs. This is a critical point of clarification that must be made and publicized.”

Basically, even the one victory that JOFA and other women read in the original RCA statement, is not really a victory after all.

I wrote a piece awhile back mentioning the Nishmat program, discussing the careful language used on their web site so as not to ruffle rabbinic feathers. Their pages are marked with a disclaimer that none of the information provided is to be used as a psak, and that women must ask their local orthodox rabbi for a final decision. Also, the website makes it clear that every aspect of the information provided is approved by a rabbi and a physcian –

For example, a popular women-run resource, the Nishmat website, has this disclaimer concerning the halachic and medical advice dispensed on its website –

This internet service does not preclude, override or replace the psak of any rabbinical authority. It is the responsibility of the questioner to inform us of any previous consultation or ruling. As even slight variation in circumstances may have Halachic consequences, views expressed concerning one case may not be applied to other, seemingly similar cases. All health and health-related information contained within Nishmat’s Women’s Health & Halacha Web site is intended to be general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for consulting with your health care professional. The advice is intended to offer a basis for individuals to discuss their medical condition with their health care provider but not individual advice. Although every effort is made to ensure that the material within Nishmat’s Women’s Health & Halacha Web site is accurate and timely, it is provided for the convenience of the Web site user but should not be considered official. Advice for actual medical practice should be obtained from a licensed health care professional.”

The women who must be the most careful with their language and deference to male authority are the ones who are the most learned and respected. It’s not the run-of-the-mill women in the community who pose a threat to the current establishment, but the women who are the most revered and admired for their Torah scholarship and personal spirituality. As representatives of female Jewish leadership, they are the ones who must set the tone for their students and other women in the community.  They are the soldiers on the front line who show women the proper order of ranking in the community, starting with themselves.

These are the women who must display a level of humility and adherence to the God-given glass ceiling of Torah learning and spiritual leadership that no man has ever had to face. These are the women who must walk the tightrope of achievement in Torah excellence, while deferring to the male scholars who will always outrank them. If they want to be allowed to continue their good work, they must continually show the community leadership and their own students that no matter how great the woman, she must always consult with someone greater for the final opinion. The superstars must downplay their own significance. In fact, such humility is coined as modesty and tzniut – one of the highest compliments you can pay a frum woman.”

Also, here I wrote about niddah advisors conceding the final authority to rabbis, even in their own field of expertise –

“…even with the advancement of highly trained female experts in the area of niddah, none of the women currently acting as advisers serve as poseks, or a final authority on a woman’s status, nor is that their goal. Rather, their role is to act as an intermediary between a woman and a rabbi….

… when it comes to making the final call on a niddah shaila, even those pioneer women who have studied, certified, and taken it upon themselves to become instructors in hilchos niddah agree that a man should be the ultimate authority on determining a woman’s status.  In the end, it’s a rabbi who must assess our discharges and confer a halachic state of tumah or tahara.”

So, if Rabbi Gordimer’s sentiments are reflective of the unofficial position of many RCA rabbis on Yoatzot Halachot – “the RCA has no official position on the matter, and many RCA members, this writer included, are not in favor of such programs” – how have the efforts of Nishmat to follow protocol helped them gain acceptance among orthodox poskim? It seems the concept of the Yoatzot Halachot, even in the restricted realm of taharas hamishpacha, is still under suspicion as a feminist threat regardless of how careful they are in their language and activities. If JOFA is the rebellious daughter and Nishmat the obedient one, what incentive is there for either to play by the rules if both are effectively hobbled without endorsement from rabbinic leadership?