Why is Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, showing the harrowing Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”?
There are a number of reasons, according to the shul’s rabbi, Howard Jachter.
The first and easiest reason is found in the shul’s name, he said. It’s Sephardic, as are the main characters in the movie. (It’s also Orthodox.) Because most movies about Jews assume those Jews to be Ashkenazim — in fact, just about any time anyone talks about Jews without specifying otherwise, those Jews are assumed to be Ashkenazim — Sephardic Jews often are drawn toward work that highlights them.
The second reason, Rabbi Jachter said, is because the movie’s in Hebrew — with English subtitles — and the large contingent of Hebrew-speaking Israelis who belong to the shul will appreciate it.
More important on his list of what he calls “subconscious motivations,” though, is “I am one of the most active mesader gittin” — the expert who is in charge of administering and overseeing the process that results in a Jewish divorce — “in the New York metropolitan area,” he said. Rabbi Jachter is on the beit din — the rabbinic court — of Elizabeth, and “I serve a large area, from Pennsylvania to Connecticut,” including Long Island and Westchester County in New York. His Teaneck home places him in the center of the area, and close to all the main highways, he added. Gittin — the documents essential to a Jewish divorce — frequently are on his mind.
Rabbi Jachter is the chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Agunah Resolution Commission; he also teaches at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.
And then there is the fully front-of-the-brain reason to show the film. “It is another opportunity to highlight and bring attention to the issue of igun” — of those women (and to a much lesser extent, some men) who remain chained by their exes’ refusal to give (or, in men’s cases, to accept) a get.
Time out for a very brief explanation — in Jewish law, only a man can give a get. (The word “get” as a noun generally is spelled with one t; at times, as in the film “Gett,” the second t is added.) Once his wife has accepted the get, the marriage is over. At times, men refuse to give their wives gittin — the plural of get — for a range of reasons; when that happens, sometimes the community applies pressure, shaming the husband until he relents. There are also cases where the almost-ex-wife refuses to accept the get, but they are far less common. Also, it is important to remember that a couple ending a dead marriage also has to get a civil divorce (although that is not true in Israel, where there is no such thing as a civil divorce).
Since 1992, Rabbi Jachter’s rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, has recommended that couples sign a prenuptial agreement obligating both of them to work with the beit din to get a proper Jewish divorce should the marriage end.
When they see the movie “Gett,” “people are going to be able to see the suffering of the igun, and we will have the opportunity to learn about what can be done.
“It’s interesting — two of the solutions emanated to a great extent from the eminent authority Ovadia Yosef” — the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and legal scholar who died in 2013 at 93, and whose funeral drew epic crowds of mourners. Rabbi Jachter’s own authority to administer gittin was given to him in 1993 by Rabbi Yosef.
“He endorsed the RCA prenuptial agreement and he endorsed the use of communal sanctions,” Rabbi Jachter said of his rebbe. “He was in the forefront of helping agunot” — the so-called “chained women,” shackled to dead marriages, whose ex-husbands refuse to give them gets — “and in his lifetime he issued rulings permitting more than 1,000 women to be remarried.”
Many of the women whose plights he alleviated were married to men who vanished fighting the Yom Kippur war. Their deaths could be assumed but not proven — and dead men can’t give gets — so the women were considered agunot. They could not remarry; they could not have children who eventually would be accepted as marriage partners. “Ovadia Yosef found a halachic path that allowed those women to be remarried,” Rabbi Jachter said.
He tells a story of Rabbi Yosef’s dedication to agunot. “He needed open heart surgery, and his doctor said, ‘You need it now. Right now.’ Now with a capital N.’ And he said, ‘No. I need five hours.’”
He took those five hours. “He was writing a responsum to allow a woman to be remarried, and he was afraid that if he didn’t finish it first, and he died on the operating table, there would be no one else to do it.
“He was a role model,” Rabbi Jachter said.
His own desire to help women restart their lives and still stay in the Jewish community started early, he said. He dated a woman who told him that her mother had remarried without having gotten a get. That means that unless someone could find some reason to invalidate her mother’s first marriage — and at times, with hard work and huge infusions of time and money, such reasons can be found — that woman could not marry within the Jewish world. “So much that I had learned became a reality to me, and I saw that it was a tragedy,” he said. “I think that there was a halachic solution in that woman’s case, but it was a tragedy nonetheless.”
The film “Gett” is “unflattering to the rabbinate,” he said. “It is accurate, but it is not the whole picture.” It is important to him to be fair.
“There are many points of light. The head of the beit din in Tel Aviv, Zvi Ben Yaacov, who is in charge of divorces, is incredible. He is a workaholic. I send him an email at 9 at night, and at 6, when I get up, I already have a response.”
Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick, who co-chairs Shaarei Orah’s programming and events committee with Amy Elfman, agrees that men who refuse to give their wives gittin present a great problem to the Jewish community. “It is a major embarrassment to the Orthodox community, and sometimes to other sectors of the community as well,” he said. “The last accurate attempt at finding out how many women were in this situation found about 435 women in the United States, and there are reports of up to 10,000 women in Israel.”
Ten thousand? Can that be? “The 10,000 maybe is an exaggeration, but maybe not,” he said.
“I’m aware of at least four situations like this that happened in Teaneck, of women being held up,” he continued. “All of them were resolved, but some of them took up to a decade. The women were all Orthodox and observant, and they remained kind of widowed waiting for the get.
“We’ve seen some really unpleasant stuff going on here. I know of one situation where lawsuits were brought against anybody who tried to put any pressure on the man, saying that they were besmirching his name. It was terrible. It also was crazy.
“Most of these guys are control freaks. They don’t like the idea that somebody has said that they were not perfect in any way. There are several organizations that use social pressure to bring them to heel. Sometimes it backfires, but a lot of it works. All of a sudden they become pariahs in their synagogues, people won’t do business with them any more.
“It’s a deeply felt issue in the Orthodox community because everyone wants to do the right thing by the women,” Rabbi Chernick continued. “Women basically are powerless. All they can do is refuse the get. The only thing that grants them power is the prenuptial agreement.”
The movie “Gett” is important because “it is unbelievably well acted.” It is being used as an “educational device — there maybe are some aspects of it that either Rabbi Jachter or I would say are drama, not real, and not exactly the way it happens. But for the purpose of showing us just how bad things really can get, this is a classic.
“What is most amazing about the movie is that its protagonist, Viviane Amsalem, is willing to be dragged through so much. She just keeps fighting. She refuses to say ‘This isn’t important. I don’t need this,’ and just walk away.