Abraham refused to grant her a Jewish
divorce; he would not give her a get.
Mrs. Abraham found herself among a
growing number of observant Jewish women
across the country left dangling in marital
purgatory by recalcitrant husbands. Under
Jewish law, it is the husband who grants his
wife the divorce. In recent years, however,
husbands are increasingly withholding that
sacred decree, leaving their wives unable to
remarry or even date other men, and known
by the Hebrew name for a woman in chains,
How many women fit this category is un-
certain. Estimates range from 50 to 15,000
worldwide. While reliable records are not
kept by rabbinical courts, the Rabbinical
Council of America — a mainstream group
of Orthodox rabbis — is developing a national
database of Jewish divorces. Whatever the
number, even the rabbis who most ardently
condemn the practice concede they are gen-
erally powerless to stop it.
"We can only explain, we can only appeal,"
said Rabbi Chaskel Grubner, who heads the
Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater De-
troit. "We can only try to make each party
understand that if it's not possible to live
together, they should separate."
While, in theory, a Jewish husband also
cannot remarry if his wife won't accept a get,
the consequences for men in such situations
are not nearly so severe.
Women who remarry without a get are
considered adulterers and their offspring
mamzerim, or bastards. Men face no such
While sheer spite drives some of these
cases, spouses who refuse to grant a get gen-
erally are seeking concessions over property
rights or child custody, according to divorce
lawyers and rabbis who work with divorc-
ing couples. The potential for extortion is
"It's a bargaining chip, plain and simple,"
said Rabbi Mordechai Wolmark of the
Mercaz, a lay group associated
with the Council of Orthodox
Rabbis. "If you are in a business
transaction and you've got the
upper hand because the other
side wants something, you're
going to use it. These husbands
feel the same way about the
While most rabbinical organi-
zations condemn the with-
holding of a get under any
circumstances, agunah activists
complain that rabbis often are
too passive in pressuring an
"We think rabbis are guilty of
many things," said Rivka Haut,
a director of the Brooklyn-based
Agunah, Inc., a women's advo-
cacy group. "They are guilty for
not looking for halachic solutions to agunah
problems. And they are guilty for permitting
the rabbinical court system to exist in ter-
rible disrepair. It's a nightmare."
Critics charge that modern-day Orthodox
bet dins, or rabbinical courts, have become
obstacles to — rather than enforcers of —
the get procedure. They note that in most
cities bet dins are not monitored, there is no
standardized practice or fee, no avenue for
appeal, and no real means of enforcing their
decrees, unless the parties submit to their
authority. In Ms. Haut's view, this melange
produces widespread foot-dragging.
"As soon as the marriage ends the get
should be the first item on the agenda," she
complained. "Yet rabbis almost always save
the get for the last."
But some area rabbis contend the solution
is not always so simple, that their first oblig-
ation in many cases is to attempt to mend
the rifts in a troubled marriage.
"Not every couple that thinks they should
get divorced should get a divorce," said Rabbi
Joseph Krupnik, also of Detroit's Council
of Orthodox Rabbis. "Sometimes, when we
advise couples not to get a divorce, it's not,
God forbid, an attempt to blackmail one of
the parties. We're simply trying to get them
to come to their senses and work things out."
At other times, the only way rabbis can
convince a husband to grant a divorce is to
wade into property disputes.
"Sometimes, certain concessions have to
be made to get that consent," Rabbi Krup-
nik said. "Whether the problems are real
or not real, unfortunately, becomes irrele-
vant. A get depends upon one thing: If the
husband and wife say yes, it's fine. If neither
agrees, it's all out the window."
Yet some rabbis go beyond benign inter-
vention and defend husbands who, in some
circumstances, refuse to give a get.
"if, say, a woman has stolen
a great deal of money from the
husband, you can (withhold a
get) until you get that money
back," argued Orthodox Rabbi
Elimelech Silberberg of Bais
Chabad of West Bloomfield. "If
you're talking about a great
deal of money, I'd want the
stolen merchandise returned
to me before I gave a get back."
That irritates Carmi
Schwartz, director of the Beth
Vin of America, a New York-
based group affiliated with the
Rabbinical Council of America.
"The get should never become
an instrument to punish, or to
make a deal or to end a deal,"
Mr. Schwartz said. "The pur-
pose of a get is simply to enable
Jews who got married as Jews to separate
as Jews when they can no longer live
Mr. Schwartz described as "abhorrent" rab-
bis who discourage men from giving gets for
any reason. "The halachic method does not
allow for us to use the get as an instrument
to settle grievances," he said.
Critics of the so-called "get wars" argue
that secular disputes over property and vis-
itation are best settled by civil courts. They
add that even where a dispute is submit-
ted to a bet din, the get ceremony should be
resolved separately from more temporal
Perhaps more ominous, to some younger
Jewish women the get ceremony itself has
become less relevant to their lives.
Stacie Fine, 31, of Bloomfield Hills, re-
ceived an Orthodox get in 1989. Though her
spouse cooperated in ending their marriage,
Ms. Fine recalls the get procedure as a "very
difficult and painful experience."
"The ceremony really focused very much
all out the