"It Is Necessary to Establish a System of Alternative Courts, Loyal to the Halakhah and Faithful to Changes in the Reality"
By Rivkah Luvitch | 22/10/2009
For two years Anat Zuria, a documentary film director, followed the lives of three women who found themselves in the situation in which their husbands refuse to consent to divorce. Her movie Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet) is a trenchant indictment of the general behavior of the rabbinical courts in Israel, and especially of their attitude to women who come before them. Rivkah Luvitch, a rabbinical court advocate, had a conversation with her
The second film by the director Anat Zuria, Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet), had its premiere screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and won the Wolgin Prize as the best documentary film of the year. Zuria is known to us from her first movie, Purity (Tehorah), that made waves in Israel and abroad, and continues to do so. Only a week ago, the "Discovery of the Year" prize awarded by the French directors' union was added to the impressive list of prizes that the movie has reaped.
Sentenced to Marriage examines the world of three women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce; each is trapped in an unbreakable relationship with the man to whom she is married. As the movie proceeds, the viewer learns that it is not the logical, reasonable, and humane option that is about to win. Zuria's camera documents three Israeli women - one ultra-Orthodox, another secular, and a third newly religious - who share a loss of control over their personal lives.
Zuria does not point an accusing finger at the husband, but at the rabbinical court establishment, that allows the husband to abuse his wife. The movie paints a picture of rabbinical judges who shirk their duty to rule justly and who do not do enough to extricate wives refused divorce from their predicament, even though they possess the halakhic and legal means to obligate the husband to grant a divorce. This is reliable testimony to what happens within the chambers of the rabbinical court, in which the rules are written by the husband, in accordance with his dictates. The bottom line: the movie raises pointed questions, not only regarding the role of the rabbinical court, but also pertaining to the institution of Jewish religious marriage as a whole.
In my work as a rabbinical court advocate for Yad La'Isha, an organization that represents women refused divorce in the rabbinical courts, I witness such distress on a daily basis. As a natural consequence of this, I sat with Anat for a talk about the film and its repercussions.
Your previous movie dealt with a clearly female topic: female ritual purity. These matters obviously occupy you personally. What led you to make a movie on women refused divorce?
The idea of making a movie began with a personal trigger. A close girlfriend of mine was trapped for six years with a husband from whom she could not extricate herself. She left this marriage without being awarded any child support, and the husband was paid NIS 10,000 by the taxpayer: a prize, or a form of bribe, for his consent to grant a divorce. Her story was so chaotic, that it looked surrealistic to me. I couldn't believe that this was the reality. In that same period I met Susan Weiss, a lawyer who founded and until recently directed Yad La'Isha. Susan's activity was not only concentrated in the practical plane of obtaining a divorce, she also engaged in the theoretical realm, in an analysis of the situation of women in the rabbinical courts and the search for sweeping solutions to their problem. Through this meeting and the conversations I had with Susan, and through my experience with my good friend, I understood that this was one of the major topics in the great conflict of Judaism in our time: the woman and modernity. I quickly realized that the chaotic story that my anonymous friend underwent is actually an archetype and a story representative of what happens to many women in the rabbinical court. I began to understand that this was only part of the system. I opened books and I turned to the roots of Judaism, and I discovered that in the halakhah, too, this appears systemically, and that the lack of equality between husband and wife is structured within the marital relationship.
Then the covert topic of the movie is woman's standing in marriage by Jewish religious law?
The name of the movie, Mekudeshet [taken from the standard wedding text: "Behold, you are consecrated (mekudeshet) ..."] alludes to the fact that one of the central questions raised by the movie is that of kiddushin (the effecting of marriage). I see a connection between the acquisitional aspect of the marital bond and the standing of the woman when she wants to obtain a divorce. The religious society denies this, and the topic of acquisition is taboo, but anyone with any intellectual honesty who reads the mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin: "A woman is acquired by three means, and she acquires her freedom by two means," must acknowledge the existence of a patent element of acquisition in the act of kiddushin. The very structure of the Mishnah and its order teaches of the element of acquisition: the tractate begins with the acquisition of the woman, then discusses the acquisition of a Hebrew slave, a Canaanite slave, cattle, and finally arrives at the transfer of ownership of property. Based on my study of the sources and the discussion conducted around Rabbi Riskin's renewed proposal to retroactively annul marriage in difficult cases, as emerges from his article in the religious journal Techumin, vol. 22, in which he proposed retroactively annulling marriage in instances in which the husband does not meet the conditions that a Jewish man undertakes when he marries a woman, I reached the conclusion that the annulment of marriage was practiced in early times. In the early period, specifically, when the public and the Rabbis were not ambivalent regarding the fact that in the act of kiddushin the man in effect purchases his wife's sexual freedom, it was easier to annul the marriage if this was revealed to be an "erroneous transaction." It might be that it is actually the current conception of romantic love that makes it difficult for us to return to using solutions that existed in the past, and to develop additional models following them. "It is necessary to establish a system of alternative courts, loyal to the halakhah and faithful to changes in the reality."
For some time I have been occupied with the question of the connection between the acquisitional element of marriage and the wife's dependence on her husband's will concerning the granting of divorce. But I wonder if, in this matter - as in other issues relating to feminism and halakhah - we will have to get people to acknowledge that a problem exists in order to find a solution for it, or whether it will be possible to attain satisfying solutions without recognition of the cardinal problem.
Bigamy is one of the difficult matters in which the court is "stuck." Even though Judaism has undergone profound changes over the course of time regarding its perception of the relations between man and woman in the context of the marital bond, the court still acts as if the husband is permitted to marry more than a single wife. In its rulings it delivers a covert, and even overt, message that the man may live with another woman while still married, but - Heaven forbid - that a woman should act likewise. The husband of Michal, one of the heroines of the movie, lives with another woman, and during the production of the movie he had a second child with her. The court is not at all troubled by this, but, at the husband's request, it issued a restraining order preventing a male friend of Michal from entering her home. In practice, the court has brought back the idea of bigamy into the reality of our lives.
This is a clearly fundamentalist act, and is hidden from the eyes of the public and the media. The movie turns the spotlights on this dark corner, in order to dismantle the public denial of a topic that, in my opinion, exists. I want us to confront the reality, and to ask the consequently harsh questions that must be raised, of who we are and what is our Judaism.
From my acquaintance with you, I know that when you work on a certain topic, you enter it totally. I somewhat followed the making of the movie, albeit from a distance. During your two years of work on it you learned the subject from every possible angle, and you experienced the heroines in the deepest way possible. Tell me a bit about the processes that you yourself underwent during the production of the movie. Where did it take you?
Through the movie I entered the world of the rabbinical courts and the world of women refused divorce. I interviewed more than a hundred women refused divorce, women who had lost control of their intimate lives and their ability to choose with whom they share their lives; they had also lost the ability to have children. I'm doubtful whether the public at large understands just how delusional these courts are, at a distance of millions of kilometers from the world in which most Jewish Israelis live. Entering this delusional kingdom, the game rules in which are taken from the distant times of slavery, bigamy, and absolute male rule over women and children, and the terrible pain that this is identified as our Judaism and as our Israeli law - this is a crisis experience. Why do we let religious-Jewish fundamentalism to rule us? In the Middle Ages, Rabbenu Gershom moved us toward monogamy, but instead of following his lead, we are regressing.
I know women who have undergone this experience, and they suffer a very severe personality and identity crisis. Many of them sever themselves from Judaism, because the connection between "Judaism" and Israeli law generates a feeling that the situation cannot be remedied. it seems to me that most of the women who find themselves in this situation change their attitude to religion and also to the state that, so they feel, has abandoned them and authorized the rabbinical court to rule their lives. I went on a journey with these women and with the rabbinical court advocates and women lawyers. Throughout this journey, I grappled with the question of the woman in Judaism and the question of change versus conservatism. I kept asking myself: What does all this say for me? On the one hand, all this can lead me to a place of cutting my ties to Judaism, since Judaism bars women from the fashioning of culture, which at times seems irremediable. On the other hand, I could decide that Judaism is me, and I will struggle for my truth and for making the female voice heard.
The culture from which I came is western European. I grew up in Ramat Hasharon, and the lifestyle there is very Western. But even this culture is a masculine culture. The "woman's voice" and the "female viewpoint" are not integrally structured in it, since the agenda is male, and the dominant identity is male. The halakhah is the male voice in the most patent manner, a voice that, on the whole, does not include the female voice. Actually, the halakhah does not include the female voice even when this is necessary. For example, we could expect that the halakhah, which draws such a sharp distinction between men and women, would devote particular attention to the limited time of women's fertility. It is inconceivable that the rabbinical court's decisions will ignore the fact that certain years in a woman's life are critical for childbearing. The situation of being refused divorce prevents the woman from bearing children. In effect, the court sterilizes women. It is unthinkable that, without blinking an eyelash, it sterilizes women! One of the women I thought to include in the movie had a single child, and she yearned for another. At a certain point she became pregnant, but she had an abortion, so as not to give birth to a mamzer [a child born to a forbidden union, who suffers from various religious liabilities].
I am quite familiar with this matter. Once I represented a woman whose husband turned her into an agunah ["chained" woman] for more than five years. The husband had children from his previous wife, and after separating from his current wife he lived with another woman and had an additional child. The woman refused divorce was right at the end of her fertile years, and she had no children. Every week she called me and cried because, very soon, she would no longer be capable of childbearing. In one of the times in the court she whispered to me that in the past she had become pregnant by her boyfriend and had had an abortion. Today, of course, she has no children and it's already too late.
In your opinion, what degree of influence will the movie have on the rabbinical establishment? Do you think that the rabbinical judges will hear your outcry?
I don't make movies for the court, or for the rabbis or the rabbinical judges. The judges live within their little world, and ignore many realities. I can only hope that a crack will open in their world, and something of my cry will enter their hearts. My movies are intended, first and foremost, for women. I want to empower women. I want women to believe in themselves as a factor capable of creating independently and fully, and as an element that can lead to changes.
In the movie we don't hear the position of the rabbinical court. Why, actually, didn't you interview the rabbinical judges?
This was a conscious cinematic choice. The rabbinical court represents an existential social situation of the total silencing of the female voice. This is an unprecedented reality, which for me is socially taboo, and its chaotic nature had to receive formal expression in the movie. I created in it the reverse of the situation: the viewer enters the world of hurting women, in which the male presence is represented only by voices that induce evil and obtuseness. The rabbinical court is the world of men, that judges according to rules established by men, it holds the reins of authority, and it is the final arbiter in our intimate lives at a moment of personal crisis. I experience the rabbinical court as a place that is estranged from women, children, and the modern Israeli and Jewish reality. This is a social world of its own, with its separate consciousness. The movie shows the reality from the women's side, a reality that is hardly known to the public at large and that, in my opinion, is not understood in depth by the rabbinical judges themselves.I saw people who came out of the first screening in a state of shock. Even people who thought that they are quite familiar with the religious system and understand it did not imagine that the situation was so harsh. The movie is built as a Kafkaesque movie of the absurd, and the rabbis are presented in it metaphorically, as a type of unidentified shadowy government that exerts unassailable command over the intimate lives of Israeli women, and that is responsible for many women losing control of their marital lives. The movie seeks to provide a forum for these women, whose voice has been muted.
Do you find it coincidental that you, a religious woman, make a movie so critical of the religious system?
An artist observes the society in which he lives. As an artist, I observe the familiar and the natural and attempt to see the reality in a new light. I go about in the religious world somewhat like a stranger, and don't accept anything as self-understood. Accordingly, the reality is always a riddle, replete with doubts and surprises. These are the materials from which I create.
I feel that the problems in the religious establishment especially trouble me specifically because I'm a religious woman. The religious part of me, that believes in the worth and importance of the tradition and the halakhah, cries out and feels wounded by the so harsh harm inflicted on women.
I don't feel that the rabbinical court is a part of me. Throughout the Jewish tradition, there were prophets and sages who cried out against the degenerate authorities. There's nothing new here. Judaism always succeeded in including voices of self-criticism. In this matter, I feel part of an ancient tradition.
What's your prediction regarding the institution of Jewish religious marriage?
I have a problem with the insufferable easiness of divorces today. Notwithstanding that, the fossilization and fundamentalism of the halakhah, as it is interpreted in the rabbinical court, are no less intolerable. In my opinion, it is important for us as a society to establish a diverse Jewish judicial world and to dismantle the artificial monopoly of the existing rabbinical courts. Sometimes the rabbis seem to be like the priests of the end of the Second Temple period: a world of religious rulers, a world of a degenerate religious nobility that is detached from the source of future vitality. As I see it, despite their repression, women will lead the coming spiritual developments.
Rivkah Luvitch is a rabbinical advocate in Yad La'Isha
Translated by Ed Levin