History & Development of Divorce

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But if a man is compelled to appear before the beit din, can he be considered to be acting with his "full consent"? The rabbis answered "yes" by creating a legal fiction that a man who agrees to divorce his wife because of the pressure exerted on him to obey an order of a Jewish court is considered to be acting of his own free will. This device gave to the Jewish court the right to coerce the husband, or to a non-Jewish court the power to apply pressure at the behest of the Jewish court.

angry familyJewish law does not permit physical violence or the issuing of a communal ban against the husband, but does allow coercion using words, for example, pressuring him through an issue unrelated to the divorce or withholding assistance that he requests but is not entitled to. But in the end, if the court is unable to convince him, the beit din cannot mandate a divorce if the husband refuses to give the wife a get.

Issues with Divorce

Yet serious problems remain. Traditional rabbis have been unwilling to directly challenge or abolish the husband's absolute power in the divorce situation. Hence, a woman cannot present a get to her husband in order to divorce him (although this is a possibility within Reconstructionist Judaism, and both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept civil divorce as fully dissolving a marriage). And even a Jewish court cannot grant a divorce without the consent of the husband.

The potential for abuse remains for wives in the Conservative and Orthodox movements, as husbands may extort money from their wives in exchange for a get or may refuse to grant a get out of spite or anger, leaving the woman an agunah, or deserted wife. The agunah cannot remarry and if she has children with another man, they are considered mamzerim, who may only marry converts or other mamzerim [according to biblical law].

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