Whoever doesn't know or hasn't yet heard...here it comes... in the State of Israel polygamy is legal. Women can languish a hundred years until they see a get - if at all- while men need only wait a few years until the rabbis permit them to marry a second woman. Now pay close attention...
Ashkenazi men receive a ‘Heter Mea Rabbanim’ (a special procedure that allows a Jewish male to marry a second woman, overriding Rabbi Gershom's ban which forbids a man to marry a second woman). Since the Sephardic community never accepted Rabbi Gershom's ban upon itself, Sephardic men do not even require this special heter (dispensation) - they simply need the signature of the president of the High Rabbinic Court in order to marry again.
Rav Ben Dahan, director of the Rabbinic Courts, claims at every possible opportunity that these are simply five or six isolated cases per year. I can personally state that in the past few months alone I have heard of some five instances in which the Rabbinic Court wrote in its decision that if the wife does not agree to accept a get immediately, then the Court will grant the husband the aforementioned heter and permit him to take a second wife. Who knows how many such cases exist? Rav Ben Dahan's statistics clearly do not include rabbinic decisions that contain threats of this nature.
Why at women's expense?
So let’s just admit the truth—the system is bad. A system that establishes that a marriage cannot be dissolved without the other party's consent, isn't doing anyone any good. We live in an age where divorce has become commonplace. Economic prosperity, longer life spans, and individualism are just a few of the reasons for the increase in the divorce rate. The battle against increasing divorce rates can't be fought simply by forcing a couple to live with one another.
Indeed, the men and women who have been refused a get have already been de facto living separately from their spouses for many years, and neither the Rabbinic Court's inflexibility nor any archaic law will bring these two sides to reconciliation. If the couple has already been living apart for a number of years, and has already divided up its property and retirement funds—then any intelligent person can see that there is no reason for them to still be registered as 'married'. The time has come to simplify divorce.
However, if this is what needs to be done, it should not be at women's expense, and it must not be done unilaterally. It is inconceivable that it is so easy to find a solution for the poor men who are stuck with women they don't want, but when it comes to women, the Rabbinic Courts wax poetic about the "sanctity of the Jewish home", the purity of the Jewish People, and an eternal Halacha that cannot be changed.
Halachic scholars must start making radical changes to the Halacha being applied nowadays in the Rabbinic Courts, using the existing Halachic tools at their disposal—and these tools do exist. If they don't do so, then their clients (the Israeli public) will vote with their feet and stop getting married "in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel."
They must find a way to neutralize one party's ability to deny the other party's freedom. If this means that the rabbis should arrange a "conditional kiddushin" at the beginning of this process, then such a document should be drawn up, and the kiddushin should be organized accordingly. If this means that a get should be prepared in advance, which would be delivered via messenger and only come into effect under certain circumstances- then such a document should be prepared. If this means that the kiddushin should be annulled in certain cases—then so be it.
Don't leave matter in courts' hands
It cannot be that the power to keep the other party chained in the bonds of marriage is in the hands of someone who has turned from a lover to an enemy, and may sometimes look for any opportunity to extort and exact revenge from the other side.
There is no doubt that we are talking about a big change. Change, it seems, will not come about through the Rabbinic Courts. But why are only the women's organizations protesting loudly? Where is the rest of the rabbinic community and the Halachic poskim (decisors)? The candidates for rabbinic judicial seats, halachic scholars and poskim in our community need to be asked their opinion on these subjects and be required to state their opinions publicly.
Tzohar rabbis also need to formulate positions on these important issues and express them publicly. We cannot leave the entire matter of matrimony to the rabbinic court judges, simply because they are the ones ruling on these matters. On second thought, we also cannot leave these important issues up to Tzohar rabbis, halachic poskim and candidates for rabbinic judicial seats. The public is called upon to stand up and take action. Before you get married—sign a document that includes a "condition" in the kiddushin, or "retroactive get by agency." You can begin to make a change.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinical advocate, working at The Center for Women’s Justice
Translated by Yael Bitton