March 23, 2006
The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’
When Rabbi Hagai Batzri remarried, on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles, his first wife, Luna Batzri, still hadn't received a get from him, a Jewish divorce.
According to Jewish law, the rabbi, 41, is now married to two women at the same time, and Luna, 36, seems to be in the unfortunate position of being an agunah, literally a "chained woman," unable to remarry.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of agunot around the world, and they face numerous emotional and practical obstacles. Not only can these women not remarry, but Jewish law dictates that a child born to an agunah can never marry a Jew, and her offspring and subsequent generations cannot marry Jews, either. Forever.
Reports on the Batzri case have prompted outrage in Israel and in Los Angeles, both because Hagai is from a prestigious religious family in Jerusalem and because Luna is seen as yet one more victim of the inequities between Orthodox men and women.
But as is often the case with divorce, there are complications in the story of this young couple who were once leaders of a Sephardic synagogue and schooling center in Los Angeles' Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Although the characters in this Los Angeles-Israel drama fit into stereotypical roles -- the "poor wife," aggrieved by her "powerful religious husband" and by the "evil rabbinical courts" -- there is another side to the tale.
Hagai and Luna Batzri each agreed to give The Jewish Journal a personal perspective on their situation. It was the first such interview for Hagai; Luna's story has been previously told in the Hebrew press, both in Israel and Los Angeles. Paired with Hagai's version, along with accounts from other rabbis involved in the case, a nuanced picture emerges and raises questions: Is Luna Batzri a victim of religious law biased against woman, or is she also perhaps a victim of her own decisions in the course of a bitter divorce? For his part, is Hagai Batzri a victim of an unforgiving wife or is he a man who has unfeelingly bent the rules of Jewish law in his favor and against his wife?
Hagai and Luna Batzri were introduced to one another by their aunts in Jersualem in 1988. He was 23, from a prestigious ultra-Orthodox family (his father is the head of the Jerusalem Court); she was 16, in the army and from a religious Zionist family (her father owns a profitable construction company). Within a few months they married and moved to Los Angeles, where Hagai had been living.
After working in various businesses, Hagai studied for the rabbinate. In the late 1990s, the couple founded the Orthodox Sephardic synagogue Hashalom in L.A.'s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, serving 150 people of Israeli, French, Persian, Iraqi and Middle Eastern backgrounds. They also created the Talmud Torah, an afterschool Hebrew studies program for public school kids ages 6-12, with an enrollment that grew to 220 students.
"Everyone was together, it was like a family there," said an Israeli shul member who was a close friend of the couple and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They looked like the perfect couple. He was a good rabbi. She was giving shiurim [religious classes]. He was always complimenting her."
But the marriage was "up and down," Luna said. Over their 15 years of marriage, she said, "we almost got divorced four times," but they managed to patch things up for the sake of their community and for their teenage son. By August 2003, though, they couldn't hold it together. The couple began to talk divorce.
At first their parting seemed to proceed as amicably as could be hoped for, Luna said. They went to mediation at Jewish Family Service to avoid the courts.
"You know, even though we were doing something very hard, it's possible to finish it in a proper way and make it a Kiddush Hashem," a sanctification of the name of God, she said.
Over the next few months, Luna said they came to an agreement about sharing custody of their son and dividing their assets, including the synagogue and the school. She said she wanted to finish everything before she went to the beit din, the rabbinical court, to obtain her Jewish divorce.
"You know, when you start you think everything is going to be nice, with good will. But when it comes down to it, no one is going to be handing out candies," Luna said, using an Israeli expression meaning that it won't be easy.
After Passover 2004, the Batzris were set to go to the beit din with their agreement to receive their get. And that was when the trouble began.
According to Jewish law, a man and a woman must obtain a rabbinic dissolution of marriage in a beit din. If one of the parties does not accept the get, the court issues a contract of refusal to the recalcitrant party. But the procedure differs for a man and a woman: The man can take this contract and then, with the permission of 100 rabbis, can dissolve the marriage. The woman, however, even in the face of a recalcitrant husband, can do no such thing.
Although many reputable Jewish courts and rabbis shy away from issuing or aiding in the 100-rabbi dispensation, the fact that it's possible for the husband to obtain a religious divorce -- though it can cost thousands of dollars -- creates an imbalance. This also gives the husband greater leverage in civil court, for example, if he chooses to make his get conditional upon a better financial or custody arrangement. (A wife can also use the get as leverage, but that is riskier, because her husband can dissolve the marriage without her.)
There are less savory methods for a woman to obtain her husband's get: Stories abound of "Sopranos"-like pressure being applied to a recalcitrant husband until he acquiesces. This is not common, however, and only happens in very religious, tight communities. Women can also publicly embarrass their husbands until they submit.
In the last 20 years, Jewish feminist organizations have enlisted the community to help solve the problem of agunot. In 1992, the state of New York added an amendment to domestic-relations law known as "The Get law," which says that if a party refuses to remove a barrier to the other person's ability to get married, the court can award more property to the person who was thwarted. There's no such law in California or elsewhere.
For its part, the Rabbincal Council of America, the Orthodox board of rabbis, has adopted a prenuptial agreement that, in the case of divorce, binds both parties to arbitration of the beit din and can force the beit din to follow the property laws of the United States.
It is unclear how many agunot there are in America today, in part because rabbis and activists define the term differently: Rabbis define it narrowly as any woman who cannot obtain a get; activists say any woman who is forced to take a get under duress -- and accept a compromised financial or custody settlement in civil court -- is an agunah.
Luna Batzri says that right before the divorcing couple was set to go to the beit din, Hagai suddenly asked her for money, and she refused. He then had her locked out of the school, she said, prompting her to go to civil court to clarify their exact financial assets and prevent him from taking the half portion that is legally hers according to California's communal-property law. According to Luna, for the next two years, as the civil court proceedings continued -- and a civil divorce was granted despite the settlement battles -- Hagai demanded that if Luna wanted a get, she would have to move all of her civil claims to a beit din, which is considered a binding arbitrator in the United States Court system.
Luna refused to move her claims to religious court.
"When a woman gets married, she knows she's going into a jail -- it's up to the husband's good will," Luna said. "If he decides to be nice, then you're OK. Otherwise you're stuck."
Hagai Batzri tells a different story.
"I never asked her for money," he said.
Over the last month Hagai remained silent as Luna took her case to the media in Israel. Hagai said he didn't react to avoid embarrassment to his family's name. He changed his mind to set the record straight on matters he would have preferred to remain private.
"I wanted to give her a get without any preconditions," Hagai told The Journal by telephone from his Beverly Hills home, which he shares with his new wife and his son. (Although Luna and Hagai share custody, their son lives with his father). "But she didn't want to accept it."
Hagai claims Luna had been unfaithful but never wanted the divorce, which she denies, accusing him, in turn, of the same offenses. Hagai said she wants to ruin him.
"She had the power to destroy me and she destroyed everything," he said. "I lost everything -- my community, my school. I have no car. I have no house. I only have debt."
Rabbis involved in the case support Hagai's claim that at first his conditions for the get were not linked to moving all civil claims to religious court.
"Somehow, she believed that she had a better advantage in civil court," said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbincal Council of California (RCC), which oversees the main Jewish religious court in the state and handles between 80 and 100 Jewish divorces a year.
"She looks like she's stuck even though she's not," Union said.
It's hard to determine how much money is at stake in Batzri vs. Batzri; the three-volume civil court record suggests that the amount could range from $0 to $800,000. Luna declines to discuss figures, and Hagai claims his money has been consumed by legal fees. (The original lawyers for both sides have left the case and were unavailable for comment.) Hagai was recently held in contempt of court for not paying spousal and child support -- thousands of dollars a month -- and performed community service in lieu of jail time.
As the legal battles continued in civil court, Hagai made the get conditional upon Luna's removing all claims from civil court. And the rabbis couldn't argue with that, because that is his right.
"Halacha says you can't litigate in court," Union said, using the Hebrew word for the body of Jewish law. "If you're not an Orthodox Jew, I can accept someone saying that they're not going to be bound by a Torah they don't believe in. But if you profess to be a Torah-observant Jew, how can you want it any other way?"
Agunah experts disagree.
"No woman in her right mind should go to the beit din to deal with anything but the get," said Alexandra Leichter, a Los Angeles divorce attorney knowledgeable on Jewish divorce.
Based on her experience as counsel and consultant in hundreds of divorce cases, she said that religious laws favor the man when it comes to property, spousal support and custody. As a legally recognized arbitrating authority, the beit din's rulings are binding, except on matters of child custody, although sometimes even its custody rulings are upheld by the secular court.
Union said that the beit din does not deserve its reputation among some for favoring men.
"It's an unfair perception -- this attitude that the rabbis are always going to find for the husband," he said. "It's a difficult thing to combat." He cannot disclose particulars, he said, but women often do better in beit din than they would in civil court.
Regardless of what led to the impasse, Hagai ultimately wanted an end to litigation in civil court and to deal with the entire case in beit din, and Luna refused to bring all financial matters to the religious court.
"I'm supposed to get my get no matter what," Luna said.
A standoff like this could have lasted for years, especially given that the RCC does not issue the permission of 100 rabbis. But Hagai took an unusual step, one that confounded and upset many rabbis and others in the Jewish community. He asked the beit din to write a letter stating that Luna refused to appear in court. Union complied, writing that Luna "refused to come to the court and receive a get."
Union said his letter was intended just to document the facts, not as an official rabbinical document calling her recalcitrant.
Luna said Union knew what he was doing and was a party to her ultimate betrayal -- the remarriage of her husband.
Hagai took Union's letter to Rabbi Moshe Ben Zaken, a well-known Sephardic rabbi, who sent Luna three more summons to appear before his own beit din, a religious court with an address listed in Beverly Hills. Zaken's beit din, unlike the one run by the RCC, is not recognized by religious authorities in Israel. After Luna refused to show up, Ben Zaken, basing his decision on Union's letter, issued a statement allowing Hagai to remarry.
To be sure, Hagai received the permission of one rabbi, not 100, as required by Jewish law. However, Ben Zaken asserts that Sephardim are not subject to the rule because, in fact, Sephardic men are allowed to take more than one wife at a time. The Torah stipulates a man may take two wives. In the year 1000, however, Rabbi Gershom Ben Judah forbade this, a prohibition that was not upheld by Sephardim. Today, Sephardim practice monogamy out of custom and out of respect for the laws of their home countries, but Ben Zaken maintains they are not bound by it.
Ben Zaken's permission for Hagai to remarry has enraged many in the Sephardic community here.
"We tried to represent the community as an honest, modern ethical Sephardic world," said Rabbi Danny Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, who, like many rabbis, had never heard of this halachic ruling being applied before. "It unfortunately does a lot of damage to the Sephardic community."
Nevertheless, Hagai Batzri found a way around the impasse. He could remarry. And he didn't even have to give his first wife a get.
As things stand, Hagai Batzri is legally remarried, according to both civil and Jewish law.
"No one is suggesting that his new marriage is not valid," said Union, who insists he was an unwitting accomplice to a halachic chicanery of which he does not approve.
And Luna Batzri might be worse off than ever, because the one piece of leverage she had over her husband -- preventing him from remarrying -- is gone.
But the situation is far from over. Luna swears she will fight on, in the court and in the court of public opinion. In the last few weeks she has plastered Los Angeles shuls and kosher markets with signs criticizing Hagai; she has berated rabbis for allowing him into their synagogues; and she has enlisted feminist and rabbinical organizations in her cause.
"I know that whatever I did was 100 percent right. I don't have any doubt about this divorce," Luna said.
She plans to make him pay for putting her in a virtual prison as an agunah.
"If he's going to put me in a jail, I'm going to put him in jail, too," she said, by filing contempt cases for not paying support. (The next hearing is set for April). The only way out, she said, is for Hagai to consent to an unconditional get.
But Hagai said he won't give in: "After all the damage she has caused me, going to the media and making me into the me'agen [one who imprisons his wife] now she will have to go to rabbinical court, and they will be the judges."
Los Angeles rabbis have met to discuss how to proceed -- but have not decided on any course of action.
"It's at a standstill. Someone's going to have to budge," Union said. "You have the irresistible force and the immovable object."
Among those concerned is Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox congregation B'nai David-Judea, who spoke about the Batzri case last week at Shabbat morning services at his synagogue. Kanefsky summed up his argument in an interview with The Journal: "The transcendent point -- the only point here -- is that remarriage without an unconditional get being made available is a precedent that as a community we should not tolerate, because it leads to very bad things."