Know the Laws:
UPDATED March 12, 2010
A get is a divorce under Jewish law.
A get is a divorce under halacha, or Jewish law. The word can also refer to the document that grants the get, though its technical name is sefer k’ritot, or scroll of severance. The sefer k’ritot is a no-fault document, not citing any specific reasons for the divorce, though a sofer or scribe writes it out specifically for the couple involved.
A literal interpretation of the law states clearly that only a man may initiate divorce proceedings. Some Orthodox authorities still hold strictly to this law but Conservative, Reform, and even many Orthodox authorities agree that although the Talmud says it is the husband who must have the sefer k’ritot written, the wife may begin the process of the get by convening a beit din (rabbinical court).
Jewish law allows for divorce under many circumstances, including what civil law calls “irreconcilable differences.” Because Jewish law values marriage so highly, it looks unkindly on any abuse of the marital bond by either partner.
In halacha, marriage is a sacred commitment between husband and wife, so a get is considered the solution of last resort when there are marital difficulties. Most rabbis will suggest that a couple seek counseling before pursuing a get, unless the rabbi understands that one spouse has been abusive to the other.
The writing of the sefer k’ritot, the delivery of it to the woman, and her acceptance of it constitutes a get. Once she has received the document, a woman is considered divorced, and can, if she chooses, remarry under Jewish law. If she does not get a get, a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law, including in the State of Israel.
In the United States, a get does not constitute a civil divorce and is not recognized by the states. Likewise, a civil divorce dissolves a civil union, but is not considered to dissolve a Jewish marriage in the Orthodox and Conservative movements. (Reform rabbis generally accept a civil divorce as sufficient to dissolve a Jewish marriage.) If a Jewish woman wants to be free of her former husband both legally and under the strictest interpretation of halacha, she needs both a civil divorce and a get, and must initiate proceedings for each individually.
If a person was married under Jewish law, that person cannot technically remarry under Jewish law without a get. Many Reform rabbis are willing to perform a wedding for a person who has previously only received a civil divorce from his or her former spouse, but it is necessary to get a get in the Orthodox and Conservative communities. Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews may still feel they need a get in order to conform to the strictist interpretation of the law.
Many non-religious Jews choose to marry under a chuppah (wedding canopy), sign a ketubah (marriage contract), and have a Jewish wedding performed by a rabbi or cantor, yet remain unaware that in order to be able to remarry under Jewish law they need to obtain a halachic divorce under Jewish law. If you are a non-religious, unaffiliated, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jew who married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, you may wish to get a get so that you can remarry under Jewish law and have that marriage recognized by all streams of Judaism. However, if this is not important to you, you may decide you do not need to pursue a get.
Orthodox authorities hold that Jews who were married in civil ceremonies must also receive a get in order to be able to remarry under Jewish law. So if you were married under civil law, you may still want to get a get to conform with a strict interpretation of the law.
It can be important to get a get for the sake of any offspring of a second marriage. If a Jewish woman remarries without having received a get, even if she has received a civil divorce, the children of her second marriage are technically considered mamzerim (illegitimate) and will not be accepted into many Jewish communities, Orthodox and otherwise. This means a mamzer cannot participate in a synagogue or marry a Jew either in an Orthodox community or in the State of Israel. If a man remarries without a get, his children are not considered mamzerim.
The Reform movement rejects the entire concept of mamzerim, and accepts any child of any Jewish parent as a Jew, able to marry into the community and participate in services. The Conservative movement holds the position that a congregation should not dig into a member’s background, which basically implies that a Conservative synagogue can turn a blind eye to the acceptance of mamzerim. In Orthodox circles, mamzerim are not permitted to participate in the religious life of the community in any way.
The status of a mamzer is inherited for ten generations. For this reason, even Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews may want to get a get for the sake of their future children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, whose affiliation they cannot foresee. Though the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept a civil divorce as sufficient to constitute a Jewish divorce, many liberal rabbis will counsel divorcing couples to get a get if possible in order to conform with a stricter interpretation of Jewish law. This is for the sake of any offspring of a second marriage.
Any Jewish person who has been married to another Jew is eligible to receive a get. If you are a Jewish person who was married under civil law (by a justice of the peace) or by a clergyperson of another religion (for example, in a Unitarian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baha’i, Buddhist, or Hindu ceremony) you are still eligible to receive a get if your former spouse was Jewish by birth. This is because halacha accepts a marriage as valid once it has been performed, even if it was made without signing a ketubah.
If you are a Jewish woman whose former husband was not Jewish, you are not eligible to receive a get and do not need one to be considered divorced.
The question of who is Jewish is still hotly contested between and within the various streams of Judaism; to answer it would be beyond the scope of this page.
It is helpful to note, however, that the Reform movement holds that any person with one Jewish parent is a Jew; thus, a person whose father was Jewish is Jewish. The Reform movement also accepts any convert, regardless of what kind of rabbi converted him, as a Jew.
The Orthodox rabbinate naturally hold more closely to halacha, and argues that only a person whose mother was Jewish is a Jew. A patrilineal Jew ("a person whose father only in Jewish"), in Orthodox eyes, is not a Jew at all. Orthodox rabbis may also refuse to accept as Jewish someone who was converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
So the question of who is considered Jewish for the purposes of getting a get is quite sticky. If you are a Reform Jewish woman married to a patrilineal Jew, there is some question if the Orthodox rabbinate would even accept your marriage as halachic; so you may not need a get to be considered divorced. If you are unsure if you need a get to be considered divorced under a strict interpretation of Jewish law, consult your rabbi.
One of the best ways to prevent the possibility of becoming an agunah is either to sign a prenuptial agreement or to write a statement into your ketbuah indicating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. The Orthodox rabbinate argues that writing such a clause (called the Lieberman Clause, in honor of the Reform rabbi who first introduced it) into the ketubah is non-halachic (invalid under Jewish law), but the Conservative rabbinate supports this measure. Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, support the signing of a prenuptial agreement. This can be entirely separate from a secular (nonreligious) prenuptial agreement, and can refer exclusively to the responsibility of both parties to give and accept a get should the need arise.
Few who are about to get married really want to think about divorce because no one thinks it will happen to them. However, the problem of the agunah is a serious one, and it is wise to protect yourself against such a situation. Jewish couples already sign a ketubah, detailing their obligations to each other, so signing a prenuptial agreement is only one more step.
Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, suggest that couples who are already married sign a postnuptial agreement stating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. This, too, may seem like an awkward step for a married couple to take, but it just another way to safeguard both parties’ rights in the event of the marriage’s end.
Jewish people of all traditions should also educate their children about the problem of agunot, the necessity of respect in marriage, the qualities that define a healthy relationship, and the kinds of behaviors that are considered to be abuse. This education can help to prevent the problems of agunot and domestic abuse in the next generation.
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.
An agunah (or chained woman) was traditionally a woman whose husband had disappeared in wartime or at sea, for example. Such a woman could not remarry under Jewish law because her husband cannot be proven to be dead -- in the event he is still alive, he and his wife are still married if he didn’t give her a get before disappearing. As a solution to this problem, in the contemporary State of Israel, many men write their wives a conditional get before leaving for military service. This document assures that if the husband is lost in battle, his wife will be free to remarry and go on with her life.
Today, however, many agunot find themselves "chained" by husbands who refuse to give them a get. This refusal to give a get is a common form of spousal abuse, a way to keep power and control over a woman and prevent her from moving on with her life. Often a man abuses his power by refusing to give a get unless his wife agrees to give him custody of their children, money, or something else that he wants.
Being an agunah can create real hardship and sorrow for a woman, her children, and for all her friends and family. As an agunah, she is unable to re-marry and have full control over her own life decisions. For an Orthodox woman, the inability to re-marry and perhaps have children can make her feel as if she has lost her identity, which may be entirely as a wife and mother.
A mesarev get is a man who refuses to give his wife a get, forcing her to become an agunah. Such behavior is frowned upon by all streams of Judaism.
A beit din will often issue a decree, called a seruv, against a mesarev get, condemning (criticizing) him for refusing to grant his wife a get. Seruvim are taken very seriously in observant communities of all streams, though outside the State of Israel, they have no legal force under civil law.
Many Orthodox communities will place social or financial pressure upon a mesarev get to urge him to divorce his wife. Some communities will refuse to allow him to participate in the life of the synagogue; friends will cut off relations with him; and the members of many communities will refuse to do business with him. Jewish communities publish the names of mesarvei get in their newsletters, the local papers, and even on the Internet, guaranteeing that the man’s bad behavior is widely known. Often concerned members of a community will picket outside the home of a mesarev get or call for a boycott of his business or store. These tactics can be very effective.
If your husband refuses to give you a get, speak to your rabbi. He or she may be able to convene a beit din and issue a seruv against your husband. Your rabbi may also be able to get the community to pressure him to give it. You may also want to contact one of the organizations listed here, who assist agunot. These organizations provide women with legal counsel and with therapists trained to help victims of domestic abuse. You can also read the section above about what kinds of actions a community can take against a mesarev get. You or other members of the community, may be able to get the community to take the actions described against your husband. However, you may want to talk to a domestic violence advocate before participating in any community actions to try to make a plan that will keep you safe from your husband.
You can find advocates in your area at the Where to Find Help tab at the top of the page under State and Local Programs. You can find tips on how to make a safety plan to keep yourself safe from an abuser at our Staying Safe pages.
If a husband refuses to give his wife a get, she can still get a civil divorce in all states.
Some states have specific protections for women whose husbands refuse to give a get. New York has passed legislation, called the “Get Law,” Domestic Relations Law §253, which says that when a party sues for civil divorce, it is the responsibility of both parties to ensure that there are no barriers —religious or otherwise— to remarriage for either party after the divorce. This effectively insures that a man cannot, under the law of New York State, refuse to give a woman a get. If you live New York State, be sure to talk to your civil lawyer and your rabbi about how to insure that your husband gives you a get. Find Legal Resources in New York here.
If you live in a state other than New York, talk to your divorce lawyer to ask that s/he request that the judge make a similar order.* Go to Finding a Lawyer and choose your state from the drop down menu for legal resources in your state.
* Note: While no other state currently has statutes guaranteeing the right to a get, there is case law in the statutory annotations of many states regarding this topic. Get cases are sometimes argued under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For example, in one New Jersey divorce case, the court decided that forcing the husband to give a get fulfilled the secular purpose of completing the divorce; since no religious ritual was required in order to obtain the get, and since the get in no way impacted his ability to practice his religion, his First Amendment rights were not infringed by this requirement.
The behavior of a mesarev get is itself a kind of abuse: a man who refuses to give his wife a get is abusing his privileges under Jewish law and is seeking to control her in an abusive way. Often, when a man is unwilling to grant his wife a get, this is a continuation of controlling and abusive behaviors that were present in the couple’s marriage. Domestic violence is made up of many kinds of abuse (physical, emotional, financial, sexual) that a woman seeking a get may have survived; if her husband forces her to become an agunah, this is another form of abuse.
Many Jewish women who have survived domestic violence feel shame because they believe that other Jewish husbands are not abusive and that they themselves have failed to fulfill their duty of creating shalom bayit, peace in the home. Remember: domestic violence is never the woman's fault, no matter what your religion. Rates of domestic violence are about the same in the Jewish community as in the community at large, and they are the same across all socio-economic levels, all levels of education, all streams of Judaism, and all levels of observance. A Jewish woman is as likely as any other woman to become a victim of domestic violence. Like all such victims, she does not deserve the abuse. She does deserve the right to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure her safety and happiness and those of her children and future children.
Many battei din consider it a moral obligation to help an abused wife get away from her husband and receive a get. If your beit din is not proactive, you might consider contacting one of the organizations that assist agunot and victims of domestic violence.
Many people in the Jewish community are outraged over the problem of agunot, and many organizations are working to help improve their situation. The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, the International Council of Jewish Women ("ICJW"), and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance provide advocacy for agunot. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is currently attempting to document all cases of women who are chained to dead marriages, and seeks to raise consciousness of the problem of agunot as a human rights issue. There are also battei din in the US that specifically deal with this issue. See the Rabbinic Council of America to find this kind of beit din.
ICJW spent two years planning a conference on the situation of agunot, in which rabbis and Jewish advocates from all streams of Judaism planned to participate to seek a solution. The conference, which was scheduled for early November 2006, was abruptly canceled four days before its starting date by Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, because of intense pressure from haredi (ultra right wing groups).
Until a solution has been achieved, you can take steps to raise awareness of the situation of agunot in your community and in your state. Be vocal in speaking out against any known mesarvei get in your community, support local boycotts and pickets, and consider hosting a forum at your synagogue to discuss the situation. If there are agunot in your community, open your home to them and ask how you can help them. Write to your senators and congressmen asking them to support legislation, like New York’s Get Law, to help the problems of agunot.
In 1983, New York State passed the Get Law: Domestic Relations Law §253, which states that prior to a the court granting a civil divorce, both parties to the divorce will take all steps possible to remove any barriers to remarriage that the other party might encounter. This effectively means that in the State of New York, before a civil divorce is finalized, a Jewish husband must grant his wife a get. If you live New York State, be sure to talk to your civil lawyer and your rabbi about how to ensure that your husband gives you a get.
In 2007, the Maryland State Senate failed to pass a similar law, Bill 533. No state other than New York currently has get legislation. There is, however, case law in the statutory annotations of many states; this means that in any state, a court may or may not order a husband to give a get, depending on the circumstances of the case. Get cases are sometimes argued under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For example, in one New Jersey divorce case, the court decided that forcing the husband to give a get fulfilled the secular purpose of completing the divorce; since no religious ritual was required in order to obtain the get, and since the get in no way impacted his ability to practice his religion, his First Amendment rights were not infringed by this requirement. Speak to your lawyer about such possibilities.
Agunah International (www.agunahinternational.com), phone: 212-249-4523. Agunah International has its own beit din which is extremely proactive in granting gitten to agunot. They also counsel agunot whose husbands are withholding gitten as a means of control, provide financial aid to agunot in need, and raise awareness about the plight of agunot in the community.
GET Assistance Project of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) (http://www.nylag.org), tel: 212-750-0800 x613. NYLAG is a not-for-profit legal services agency in New York City. They provide free civil legal assistance to people who live with domestic violence and seek a divorce.
Jewish Divorce Assistance Center of Los Angeles (JDAC) - (323) 473-5222 - www.jdacla.org. JDAC provides individuals confronting the divorce process with a live resource center to help navigate the unique challenges of Jewish divorce, offering in-person emotional and logistical support, guidance through the beit din (Jewish Court) process, and informal mediation services. Additionally, JDAC offers referrals to social service agencies, legal services, and other professionals in the Los Angeles Area.
The International Council of Jewish Women (www.icjw.org) advocates for the rights of agunot. Visit their website for information about their programs.
The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (www.jcada.org), 877-88-JCADA. JCADA is based in the Washington, D.C. area, and helps local women who live with domestic violence. Among their many services, JCADA helps women find food and shelter, provides legal assistance and job training, and partners with the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) to provide counseling to victims of domestic violence.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (www.jofa.org), 1-888-550-JOFA. JOFA’s website offers a thorough guide to the process of getting a get, a glossary, and extensive reference material about Jewish law and the problems of agunot.
The Jewish Social Service Agency (www.jssa.org), 301-881-3700, provides counseling and other services to women in the Washington, D. C. area who live with domestic abuse.
Jewish Women International's National Alliance to End Domestic Violence, brings together the country's leading experts on issues of concern to all professionals working in the domestic violence field.
Kayama (www.kayama.org), 800-932-8589. Kayama is a not-for-profit organization that helps Jewish people in all states and in all countries to obtain gitten. There is no charge for their services.
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (www.getora.org), 212-795-0791. ORA is a social service agency that works with agunot, rabbis, and battei din to expedite the process of getting a get.
Shalom Bayit (http://www.shalom-bayit.org), 510-451-7233. Shalom Bayit is an organization of Jewish women in the San Francisco Bay Area working to end domestic violence. They provide support and advocacy to women who live with domestic violence, and can help observant Jewish women find safe shelter in which they can observe Shabbat, the laws of kashrut (dietary restrictions), etc.
Project Eden (www.brooklynda.org/project_eden/project_eden.htm) addresses issues for Jewish Orthodox victims of domestic violence in Brooklyn, NY. Project Eden provides grass-roots trainings to individuals who have close contact with women in the community and are often privy to family issues. This includes sheitel machers (wig stylists), mikvah (ritual bath) attendants, cosmetologists, as well as day care providers, rabbis, and kallah (bridal) teachers.