And we're back.
Over the next few posts I want to develop a thesis using recent examples of 'bad frummies in the news", something of which there is no shortage, chalilah. It is my hope to build up a common theme between all these incidents and hopefully raise some insight that might lead to discussion on how to change what I feel is the fundamental problem of Orthodoxy today.
The first example is the divorce saga of Avrohom Weiss and Gital Dodelson. Now this tragic story has been dealt with in greater detail elsewhere and it is not my intent to take any sides or delve into greater details or underlying reasons. In brief, Weiss and Dodelson were married after a brief shadchan-induced relationship, life turned out not to be ideal for either from the get-go and after several months and one child Dodelson said "enough" and left.
Here's where things got tricky. Dodelson, as might be expected, demanded a get immediately, even before the conclusion of the divorce proceedings. According to reports Weiss refused and wanted to wait until those proceedings were all done. In the absence of any beis din saying so Dodelson went public, took her story to major non-Jewish news outlets and presented herself as an agunah. With the help of some PR folks she quickly painted Weiss as the villian and even got as far as threatening a boycott of Artscroll Mesorah Publishers, the employer of a close relative of Weiss who was supporting him in his refusal to give a get.
Now when it comes to the giving of a get it is difficult to have a rational discussion. The plight of the agunah is a well-known one and the idea that there is a one-sided facet to Jewish divorce in which the man has all the power and the woman is chained to him is the foundation of the public perception that the man who refuses to give a get is an evil villian trying to ruin his wife's life. This is something that unfortunately occurs all too often but frequency of occurence does not mean that all instances of the man not quickly handing over the get are examples.
In this case, for instance, the Weiss family made a good case that the reason for get refusal was because they were still in process through the courts and were hoping to negotiate a better custody and alimony deal. Weiss reportedly had no problem with giving the get but wanted to wait until the end of the process. This was not sufficient for Dodelson who reportedly wanted the get immediately on demand. The question must be asked then: al pi halacha does she have that right? Did Weiss have an obligation to hand over the get as soon as he was told to?
Let me point out the following: no he doesn't. Al pi halacha divorce proceedings are initiated and completed by the husband. A wife's request for a divorce, as legitimate as it might be, carries no legal significance. Yes, in a reasonable relationship the man would hand over the get as soon as possible but if divorces were reasonable there would be a lot less family law lawyers gainfully employed.
What's more, the status of the husband as a get refuser is established when the beis din handling the divorce instructs him to hand it over and he refuses. In this particular case (please correct me if I'm wrong) there was no order from beis din.
If this is the case, why did Dodelson react the way she did when her initial requests were refused? Why did she immediately engage in a destructive PR campaign that presented Orthodox Judaism to the greater North American public as a sexist, backwards religion and threaten to cause financial damage to a major publishing house as a response? What made her think that her request for a get was all that was needed?
I would suggest it's because we in the Orthodox community have long ago forgotten something very important about Judaism. Judaism is not a religion. It is not an ethnic identity. It is a national entity complete with a constitution and full legal code covering civil, criminal, ritual and interpersonal matters. However, after 1914 years of exile something interesting has happened to our understanding of this. For pretty much all of our exile we haven't had much of a chance to exercise authority in criminal law. Civil law usage has also been pretty minimal. In fact, other than ritual acts along with some interpersonal matters like marriage and divorce most of our law has remained dormant. Yes we study it but the bottom line is that we don't realize it has a place in our daily lives like the ritual does.
In fact, since the ritual is easily 90% or more of our contact with the legal aspects of Judaism we seem to have quietly subsumed the final 10% (or less) into it. I would suggest that this is the case in the Dodelson-Weiss divorce. Dodelson didn't see the get or the need for beis din to order it handed over as necessary. For her and her supporters it was a ritual matter. The marriage was over as soon as she said so and according to ritual when a marriage ends the husband hands over the get. It's like refusing an aliyah or putting on tefillin before Shacharis. You just do it because it's part of the ritual!
Weiss, on the other hand, seemed to understand that the get is the final part of the divorce and since the courts were still involved and there were outstanding issues the marriage was technically not over, therefore there was no reason to hand over the get. This did not save him because he was still portrayed as violating his ritual requirements.
It would therefore seem that much of the friction between Dodelson and Weiss arose from this conflict between ritual and legal understandings of Judaism.