Know the Laws:
UPDATED March 12, 2010
A get is a divorce under Jewish law.
In order to get a get, first speak to your rabbi. If you do not have a rabbi, you can ask a friend or relative who trusts his/her rabbi to refer you, or you can find one through the websites of the Union for Reform Judaism http://data.urj.org/conglist/, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism http://www.uscj.org/Find_a_Synagogue_Sea5425.html, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation http://www4.jrf.org/cong, or the Orthodox Union of Rabbis www.ou.org. If you are an agunah, go to http://www.agunahinternational.com.
Under most circumstances, and assuming the couple has not already received a civil divorce, the rabbi will first suggest that you and your partner seek counseling. However, if you are in an abusive marriage, counseling may not be a safe option for you. Batterers' behavior often will not change even with counseling. If you feel that counseling is not a good option, or that to delay the divorce could make you unsafe, be sure to be talk to your rabbi about this.
If counseling is not an option, or if, after counseling, you do not want to continue the marriage, you can begin proceedings for a get in many Jewish communities. If you are an Orthodox woman, some authorities will not allow you to pursue a get because of a strict interpretation of halacha. Some liberal rabbis will allow any party to pursue a get. In most streams of Judaism, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and many more progressive Orthodox synagogues, a woman can ask her rabbi to convene a beit din or rabbinical court. The beit din will review the case, and can issue a summons requiring the husband to appear before it to give the wife a get.
It is important to note that even with such a summons, the beit din cannot actually force the husband to give a get, as halacha requires that the get must be given of a man’s own free will. There is ongoing debate about how to define “free will” and what is considered acceptable or unacceptable pressure for the beit din and the community to apply in such a case. It is also important to note that, outside the State of Israel, a beit din has no civil legal authority, so an unwilling or abusive husband may simply choose to ignore the summons. This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done. See below What kinds of actions might a community take against a mesarev get?
Once a husband has agreed to give a get, the process is uncomplicated. Unlike a civil divorce, it does not involve litigation. The husband has a sofer write the sefer k’ritot in front of him and two witnesses. The wife does not have to be present at this process, though she typically is. Traditionally, the husband delivers the get to his wife and places it in her hands. Her ritual acceptance of the document validates the divorce. The wife then returns the document to the beit din, who cut it to make sure it can never be used again and file it away. They give both the husband and the wife a p’tur, or statement of release, which says that they have received a get and are free to remarry.
If there is a history of domestic violence or other abuse, or in a case where geographical distance makes attendance impossible, the woman does not have to attend the beit din or accept the get from her husband directly. Instead, the beit din can appoint an agent for the husband to bring her the scroll of severance. Her physical acceptance of the document still validates the divorce.
A beit din is a rabbinical court, usually consisting of three rabbis, though sometimes it consists of one rabbi and two learned secular (nonreligious) members of the community. A beit din can be held for many reasons, such as to oversee a person’s conversion, and to give a couple a get.
If a husband requests a get, the beit din meets only once, to witness the writing of the sefer k’ritot and its delivery to the man’s wife. In this case, the beit din will not question either party but will simply oversee the process. If a wife seeks a get, the beit din must first meet to hear her case. If they decide her case is valid, they will require her husband to appear before them to give the get, though again, they have no civil legal authority to force him to do so. A beit din generally will not require a woman to appear if she is in danger, and will usually not ask a woman to appear at the same time as her abusive husband.
Yes, a woman can bring a friend or advocate to the beit din for support. Also, if a woman is afraid to attend the beit din because of domestic abuse, she can refuse to attend and have an agent for her husband deliver the sefer k’ritot to her.
Although the Reform movement accepts civil divorce as dissolving a Jewish marriage, the Conservative and Orthodox movements do not. Therefore, if you and your partner are both Jewish, no matter what kind of ceremony you were married in, you need a get to be considered divorced under the strictest interpretation of halacha. A Jewish marriage cannot officially be dissolved by a civil divorce, though a civil divorce is also necessary to dissolve the marriage in the eyes of the state.
As mentioned above, Jewish women may feel particular shame if they are living in an abusive or controlling marriage, because they feel they have failed to create shalom bayit, or peace in the home, which is considered a woman's primary duty under halacha. A Jewish woman may also feel shanda or shame at the failure of her marriage. Many Jewish women are brought up to believe that Jewish men make loving, gentle husbands, and victims of abuse may fear that others in the community will not believe them if they speak out against their husbands. Remember, domestic violence is never your fault and you are not responsible for your husband's behavior.
Women who keep kosher may be afraid to leave abusive husbands because of the difficulty of obtaining kosher food or observing Shabbat in a shelter or safe house. Orthodox women may fear exposing their children to secular culture in a shelter. There may be shelters available that have a kosher kitchen or that might provide you with resources so that you can bring in your own kosher food. Talk to a domestic violence advocate in your state to find out what is available by going to our Where to Find Help tab under State and Local Programs.
Jewish women, like many women who live with domestic violence, may be afraid to leave their husbands out of fear for their children or fear of being separated from them. Or they may fear that they will not find help or a safe place to go to if they are divorced. Orthodox women, many of whom live in small, tight-knit communities, may fear having their domestic problems known within that community; they may also feel uncomfortable exposing their difficulties to people outside the community, such as lawyers and caseworkers. There are legal services agencies out there that specialize in helping Jewish Women. To find out if any exist in your community, go to the Finding a Lawyer page under the Where to Find Help tab at the top of the page or go to Shelters, organizations, and help for Jewish Women. You can also go to http://www.jewishwomen.org.
You do not have to continue to be abused.