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To Break the Chains

A dramatization raises funds for advocates to help women free themselves from bad marriages.

by Julie G Fax

May 25, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Hollywood met Jerusalem this Mother's Day, when the tennis court at the north Beverly Hills home of bestselling authors Jonathan and Faye Kellerman was transformed into a Tel Aviv rabbinic court hearing the ugly details of a divorce gone awry.

Three rabbis sat in judgment, 200 spectators vied for spots in the shade and a pair of advocates - the stars of the show - presented the halachic and personal arguments of Levy v. Levy.

The scripted dramatization, based on real cases with actual quotes from judges, showcased the women advocates, or toanot, who in the past few years have taken on the previously male role of arguing cases - specifically messy divorce cases - before rabbinic courts.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat who founded the program to train toanot in 1990, says the 60 women now out in the field are accepted in batei din, or rabbinic courts, across the country, with approval from Israel's Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis, the Knesset and Israel's High Court. The Rabbinic Council of America has agreed in principle to accept toanot, although none has yet argued a case in an American beit din. Riskin said the toanot have begun to correct an imbalance that has plagued many religious courts, which issue all Jewish divorces in Israel. "I do not believe there is any document in history that was more forthcoming in terms of women's rights than the Talmud was 2,000 years ago," Riskin said. But, he said, many of those favorable opinions of the Talmud and its early interpreters "are not expressed in many courts of Jewish law. That's why our women advocates are so critical - because they have succeeded in bringing to the fore the aspect of Jewish law which protects women's rights."

Nowhere is this role more important than in cases of agunah, where the husband is withholding awrit of divorce out of malice or to extort financial or custodial concessions from his wife. Under Jewish law, the husband must willingly agree to issue the get, the bill of divorce, without which she cannot remarry. The term agunah means "chained woman."The case presented last Sunday was rife with the kind of details seen in so many of these cases: physical and sexual abuse, emotional torment, financial control, infidelity and rabbinic insensitivity that causes cases to drag out for years.

The rare view into the proceedings powerfully demonstrated why a female advocate is so necessary for the wife to have a fair trial. Aside from researching and presenting the opinions in the corpus of halachic literature that protect women, the toenet, in Sunday's case Avigayil Rock, is more likely able to elicit and present all the emotion-laden details - often sexual - that can help a case. "Because the toenet is a woman, she can more easily empathize with the pain of those women whose lives stand stranded before her," said Susan Weiss, director of Yad Le'isha, a legal aid service run by the Monica Dennis Goldberg Women's Advocate Program for the Israeli rabbinical courts. The programs are part of Ohr Torah Stone, Riskin's empire of Torah study institutions that serve about 2,000 students.

Ohr Torah Stone is currently embarked on a $15 million capital campaign to finance a new campus. Sunday's fundraiser also aimed at getting supporters to sponsor a toenet at $12,000 a year. John Fishel and Todd Morgan accepted an award for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which was the first Federation to sponsor a toenet. A toenet studies for 3 years, then must pass a rigorous exam administered by the rabbinate.

Riskin believes the toanot will help alleviate some of the agunah problem - arguably the most vexing controversy before the halachic community today. His advocates have succeeded in procuring 100 bills of divorce in problem cases. Still, he wants to see things go further. In the past few months, Riskin has begun to present a halachic solution calling for annulment ina case in which the husband refuses to grant a divorce and in which he is behaving so negatively that the rabbinic authorities can determine that his actions take him out of the realm of kedat Moshe vi'yisrael, conduct "according to the laws of Moses and Israel."

Riskin contends that the formula, uttered under the chuppah, makes the community and the rabbis partners in the relationship. Citing Talmudic precedents based on this reasoning, Riskin says the rabbinic authorities can declare the marriage invalid. It is a controversial position, but Riskin says he has begun to garner rabbinic support. He hopes more rabbis will come forward. "God must give courage and strength to rabbinic judges," Riskin said, usinga verse from Psalms to illustrate his vision of justice. "God will bless his nation with peace and will make certain that women are no longer chained to impossible relationships."

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