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Israel Has a Marriage Problem. One American-Born Lawyer Is Trying To Solve It.

Susan Weiss started out trying to win divorce cases, but now her mission is pushing Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate to change its ways

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Susan Weiss meets with a Haredi client. (Noam Revkin Fenton)
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Israel has a marriage problem. In April, Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit, published a “Freedom of Marriage World Map,” which graded countries based on the level of freedom each grants its citizens with regard to personal status. Israel was the only Western country that received a grade of 0, putting it in the company of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

This data point shocks because it is in conflict with the many other freedoms enjoyed by citizens of Israel. In contrast with areas such as freedom of speech and political opposition, when it comes to marriage and divorce, Judaism is established as the state religion in a very real way, and the rabbinate maintains a monopoly over family law that even the country’s Supreme Court ratifies. The failure to separate church and state in Israel in this one crucial arena has resulted in the imposition on all Israeli citizens—religious or not—of Orthodox Jewish law.

Many of the women who get caught up in the rabbinic court processes are not themselves religious. If you want a divorce, the rabbinic court is the only institution that can grant it. Furthermore, in Orthodox Jewish law and thus Israeli law, a marriage cannot be dissolved from without, as a civil marriage can be. Should a husband decide he doesn’t want to grant his wife a Jewish divorce—or get—no one can force him to; indeed, a forced divorce or get meuseh, as it is called, is invalid in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate. No civil alternative is available to Israeli citizens.

A woman whose husband refuses her a divorce is known as an agunah—a chained woman. Should she seek a civil divorce in another country and thereupon remarry, even in a civil ceremony, her remarriage would not be recognized by the state of Israel, and her children would be considered mamzerim—bastards—and unable to marry other Jews, according to Jewish law—and, therefore, according to Israeli civil law. (Wives can also veto divorces, but men can override their wives by securing signatures from 100 rabbis; there are few chained men.)

For decades, activists have struggled against the strictures of the rabbinic courts to no avail. But in recent years, one woman has changed the playing field, single-handedly advancing the cause of women in Israel: Susan Weiss, an American-born attorney who, with an outsider’s perspective, realized that she could circumvent the system by treating the unegalitarian quirks of Israel’s family law as human rights issues. In 2001, Weiss began suing recalcitrant husbands in Israeli civil courts for inflicting emotional damage on their wives. She has won the vast majority of the 50 cases she has brought, often getting both a judgment for hundreds of thousands of shekels, as well as the get from the husband.

“Susan really takes the most difficult cases, with her full abilities—scholarly, legal—and she takes them so seriously,” said Aviad HaCohen, dean of Sha’arei Mishpat, a private law college in Israel. “If she wasn’t here, we should invent her because of her very important role in Israeli society. Nobody but Susan is taking care of it.”

***

Weiss sports a cap of dark, curly hair, streaked with silver; it lends her a grounded quality tinted with aspects of the supernatural. When we met, last month, she was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a loose, white blouse with a hood, comfortable blue slacks, and sandals. Her modest and unobtrusive demeanor belies her iconoclastic impulses; the fire in her eyes is easy to miss, protected as they are by heavy glasses.

The Center for Women’s Justice, which she founded in 2004 to pursue cases of agunot, is housed on the third floor of a nondescript building on Emek Refaim, at the end of a long corridor with many identical rust-colored doors, each organization identified by a quiet plaque. Inside, the office is just two rooms and a cramped foyer. Weiss suggested we talk in the hallway so as not to disturb the women hard at work in the two rooms. I followed her down the hall to a pair of couches just opposite the bathroom shared by the many offices on the floor.

Weiss alternated throughout our conversation between bashful surprise at my interest in her and a clear desire to share with me a multitude of facts, stories, and theories she thought were important about the work being done by the attorneys and advocates at CWJ. Though she is a powerful speaker, there is also an unsettling and unguarded humility to Weiss that clings to her like a scent.

I asked if we could start with her background. Weiss was raised Orthodox in Bayside, Queens. “I was expected to get married and have a family, that was supposedly my primary goal,” she told me. So, she got married in an Orthodox ceremony—“K’dat Moshe V’Yisroel”—and moved to a very traditional community in Cleveland. But Weiss, who attended Stern College and Brooklyn Law School, was also a feminist. She says her consciousness was raised when she realized, at age 6, that there is a ceremony for welcoming sons into Jewish life but no corresponding ceremony for daughters. She went to work at the Federal Trade Commission in Cleveland, where she described herself “blossoming.”

In 1980, with a 2 year old and a 2 month old, Weiss and her husband, Jacob, decided to make aliyah, both for idealistic reasons and to pursue a job opportunity for Weiss’ husband, who is also an attorney. The transition was hard. After doing an internship with Israel’s state tax division—“I always joke that I had an expertise on section 254 of the tax code, the failure to record receipts”—and passing the Israeli bar, Weiss says she was shriveling. “My career stalled, basically,” she told me. “For a while I floundered here.” Then someone suggested she volunteer for women’s organizations, an idea that quickly snowballed. Weiss began volunteering for the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and after a while she asked them to pay her. When they said no—“Why should we pay you when you’re doing it for free?”—she decided to open a private practice in divorce. “When I started volunteering, I saw the women’s issue immediately, with my feminist antennae up,” she told me. Friends offered her office space and began referring clients.

In 1997, Weiss founded Yad L’Isha, a legal-aid center offering legal representation to women seeking divorce, in conjunction with the Ohr Torah Stone Institutions of Israel. Weiss told me a story that exemplifies the stultifying literalness of the rabbinic courts. “One of the clear grounds for divorce under the Talmud is bad breath,” she told me, smiling and shrugging her shoulders. “We had a client there whose husband was really pretty awful, abusive of her physically and emotionally. And he also had bad breath. So, we were arguing that he was physically and emotionally abusive, and also we said that he had bad breath. ‘Oh, bad breath! He has bad breath? Why didn’t you tell us?’” Weiss laughed, recalling the rabbis’ response. “Then they were willing to do something.” (The rabbinate did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)

Weiss’ idea with the Center for Women’s Justice was to turn the human rights violations she saw resulting from rabbinic law into torts, which could be pursued in civil courts and measured monetarily. “There’s a real schizophrenia in the country—we’re very, very pro-women and we’re very pro-gays and pro lots of human rights,” she mused. “But with respect to this area, we just carve it out and don’t look at it, and the Supreme Court is complicit in this problem. They see it as their business to defend the rabbis, to defend the state.”

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Israel Has a Marriage Problem. One American-Born Lawyer Is Trying To Solve It.

Susan Weiss started out trying to win divorce cases, but now her mission is pushing Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate to change its ways