Sharon Shenhav



By Sharon Shenhav


We are well into the 21st Century and Jewish women are not only the majority of the Jewish people, they are highly educated, articulate and well organized. So why haven’t they achieved equality?

The international Council of Jewish Women, an umbrella organization with affiliates in 43 countries, held a demonstration at the Knesset on Sunday, entitled „Jewish Women Worldwide Demand Equality“. Dressed in white and carrying placards with the flags of over 20 countries, women from the US, UK, Israel, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Columbia, Uruguay,Germany, Slovakia and Croatia stood silently but powerfully. They reminded us that despite the remarkable progress made by women in the „Feminist Revolution“ of the past 50 years, women in general and Jewish women in particular, still suffer from inequality in almost every area of contemporary life.

  • Decision making in government is still dominated almost entirely by men. Yes, the recent elections in Israel have resulted in the largest number of female MK’s serving in the Knesset, but that number is 27. Certainly not 50% and therefore not even close to equality. Several female ministers are holding important portfolios, but the cabinet is clearly male dominated and decision making at the highest levels of government is controlled by men.
  • Economic equality, as recently shown in several studies, does not exist. Women earn approximately 30% less than men, even when they hold executive positions. This inequality exists despite the fact that most Jewish women, including Israel women, are more highly educated than Jewish men. Somehow, the academic achievement of Jewish women does not translate into economic equality. While this economic inequality is found in the public as well as private sectors, it is particularly existent in Jewish communal organizations worldwide. Jewish women are rarely hired as CEO’s of major Jewish organizations, and when they do break through that glass ceiling they are paid less than their male colleagues.
  • Religious inequality is perhaps the most glaring and painful form of inequality. The Jewish divorce process is completely controlled by male Orthodox rabbis. We are all aware of the tragic and shameful existence of agunot, women trapped in an unwanted or non-existent marriage because their husbands refuse to give them a get or bill of divorcement. Women cannot be appointed as rabbinical court judges (dayanim) and in Israel, the statutory Commission to Appoint Dayanim is currently unable to function because for the first time in almost two decades not even one woman has been appointed or elected to the Commission. Women’s organizations petitioned the Supreme Court to rectify this situation and the case is pending. Legislation has been proposed in the Knesset which would guarantee three places on the 10 member commission to women and add another position which would be held for a woman. Even if this legislation should be passed, which is doubtful, women would still be in the minority on the Commission.
    Women of the Wall have shown us that Jewish women are barred from praying at the Kotel according to their wishes, though Jewish men seem to be able to pray in any manner they choose. The shocking photos of women being arrested for wearing a tallit or carrying a torah are a source of shame to the state of Israel and the Jewish religion worldwide. The recent Jerusalem District Court decision made it very clear that Jewish women have the right to pray as they wish at the Kotel and cannot be arrested for wearing a tallit. These heroic women will be celebrating Rosh Hodesh on Friday, May 10th and the world will be watching to see if those religious fanatics who attack the women will be arrested or allowed to continue their verbal and physical abuse unheeded by the authorities.
  • Domestic violence and other forms of violence against Jewish women continue to exist, despite good legislation and more robust enforcement of these laws by the criminal justice system. Almost weekly the media reports still another case of a woman murdered by her husband or partner. Rape continues to be a regular occurrence and Jewish women are not safe in their own homes. Trafficking of women is a worldwide problem and exists in every country.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace seems to be rampant. The current spotlight is on the media with the case of Emanuel Rosen dominating the daily news in Israel. However, as was pointed out in a recent newspaper article, the male dominated workplace has been much too tolerant of sexual harassment, whether it is in universities, government offices, private companies or the army. Women who complain to their superiors are likely to become ostracized and their careers will be shattered. If they file police complaints they will be considered as saboteurs.
  • Equality in the Jewish home is still unfulfilled. Even when a woman has succeeded in achieving a successful career, she returns home to take on the major role in child rearing, cooking, shopping, carpooling and cleaning. Her modern, liberal, educated husband or partner seems to be blind to the need for him to take on an equal share of the work at home.

Yes, despite a great deal of progress in the last 50 years, Jewish women have not yet achieved full equality. We should all be joining efforts to achieve this goal.

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By Sharon Shenhav


Congratulations to the Knesset, and especially new MK’s from Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi for passing legislation which requires that at least four women will be members of the Commission to Appoint Dayanim. According to this new law, the Knesset, the Israel Bar Association and the government must elect or appoint at least one woman to the Commission. In addition, an 11th member has been added to the former 10 member Commission and this 11th position is reserved for a female rabbinic pleader ( toenet rabbanit). This legislation has been long overdue, but was bitterly opposed by the Haredi political parties. However, the new winds blowing in the government as a result of the recent elections have enabled the voices of women to be heard in the selection of those rabbis who have the exclusive power to decide divorce cases in Israel.

Women’s organizations have been lobbying for equality of representation of women on the government body that chooses dayanim for many years. ICAR, a coalition of 27 organizations committed to freeing agunot, has drafted this kind of legislation and lobbied for its passage without success. The new Knesset which has the largest number of female MK’s in history has begun to flex its muscles. Orthodox women MK’s like Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Shuli Muallem (Bayit Yehudi) have led the efforts and succeeded in gaining support for this revolutionary new legislation. They are to be lauded for their commitment to the issue of women’s rights, their willingness to work with women’s organizations and their success in gaining support of their Knesset colleagues.

In December, 2002, as a result of lobbying by ICAR, I was elected by the Israel Bar Association to become one of their two representatives on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim. As the only woman on the Commission from 2003-2009, I was witness to Haredi domination of the Commission and the challenges faced by one woman versus nine male commission members. Thanks to the support of ICAR and its member organizations, at Commission meetings I was able to speak on behalf of Israeli women and to urge my colleagues to support the appointment of dayanim who were sensitive to the discrimination of women in the religious divorce process and the operation of the rabbinical courts. In many instances I was able to convince my colleagues ontheCommission to appoint the most qualified and suitable candidates, but not always. For the most part, it was a lonely as well as frustrating experience. During a brief period when Tsipi Livni was minister of Justice, we were able to join forces on bringing women’s issues to the debate. It was a real pleasure to work with this consummate female professional who studied the materials, was sensitive to women’s concerns and projected a knowledgeable as well as ministerial approach.

Working closely with women’s organizations, I had encouraged them to provide the Commission with evaluations of candidates based on the experience of women seeking divorces and appearing before some of these candidates. During Livni’s one year tenure as Minister of Justice she would request that I provide the Commission with the women’s evaluation of candidates during discussions of their qualifications. Thus women’s concerns became part of the file on each candidate and were discussed in determining whether or not a particular candidate should be appointed to be a Dayan.

Sadly, in 2011 the Israel Bar Association chose not to elect a woman to the Commission, thus leaving the Commission as an all-male body. Women’s organizations petitioned the Supreme Court to require that women be represented on this Commission and an injunction was issued, denying the Commission the right to meet and appoint dayanim so long as no women were serving on the Commission. While this matter is still pending before the Court, the recent elections have brought new faces and new ideas on women’s issues to the Knesset and the government. As Minister of Justice once more, Tsipi Livni will be chairing the Commission. The Knesset, in a historical precedent, elected a female MK, Shuli Muallem as one of its representatives to the Commission a few weeks ago. Now the Knesset has gone much further by passing the new legislation which requires that at least four of the 11 members of the Commission will be women.

While those women who will be serving on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim may find themselves a bit frustrated by the deliberations of the Commission, as I was several years ago, at least they won’t be so lonely! Four is definitely better than one!

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By Sharon Shenhav


Several years ago I was interviewed by a BBC reporter regarding the issue of agunot, women trapped in an unwanted or non-existent Jewish marriage. The reporter who was from London and was Roman Catholic asked me to give him some background information on Jewish law and the power of a husband to withhold a get so that he could ask intelligent questions during the taping of the interview. When I described the history of Jewish marriage and divorce, including the current situation in the Batei Din, he asked me how such a terrible situation could occur in the 21st Century to intelligent, educated Jewish women. „Is it men?“ he asked? „. I laughed, considered the question for a moment and then responded: „Yes, I think it’s men!“

I thought of this conversation as I read about the incredible farce that took place in the rabbinical court in Jerusalem when Shai Cohen, a prisoner, escaped from the bathroom window of the Bet Din Hagadol in Jerusalem. According to media reports, Cohen (who wears a kippah), a 40 year old man from Holon, has been in prison for 6 years for get refusal. He and his wife lived together for two years before separating 12 years ago. Despite her request for a divorce, Cohen has been recalcitrant and was therefore sent to prison by the Bet Din over 5 years ago. Apparently, Cohen had begun to discuss the possibility of giving his wife a get recently and there have been several hearings in the Bet Din Hagadol before a bench headed by Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger. At yesterday’s hearing, Cohen indicated that he was prepared to give the get and release his wife from their non-existent marriage if visiting arrangements could be made with their two children at the prison. The lawyers representing the wife and Cohen’s were to work together to draft an agreement. After the hearing, Cohen asked to go to the bathroom. The two prison guards accompanying him agreed to his request and waited outside for him to do his business. When Cohen locked the bathroom door, the guard demanded that Cohen unlock the door. Nothing happened, and by the time the guard broke open the door, Cohen had escaped by jumping out of the bathroom window.

The police began a search for Cohen including the use of a helicopter. When asked why Cohen had not been shackled, the response was that at a hearing in June, 2012, a judge had ordered that the prisoner should not be handcuffed or have shackles on his legs when brought from the prison to court hearings.

This absurd story is indicative of the plight of Jewish women who seek a divorce from abusive husbands. As an attorney who has represented hundreds of women in the Israeli Rabbinical Courts for over three decades, I can relate many horror stories of cases of get refusal. Jewish women today continue to be held in marital captivity for decades by a system which permits vindictive, greedy men to control the lives of their wives by refusing to free them to remarry.

The whole system of religious divorce in Israel, beginning with the husband, the rabbis in the Bet Din, the Chief Rabbis, the interpretation of Halacha, and including the police and the prison guards is made up of men. Our political system continues to be dominated by men and the possibility of introducing civil marriage and divorce is unlikely.

Don’t get me wrong. I like men! Married for over 53 years to a caring, sensitive man who happens to be a staunch feminist, I have been fortunate to know that there are some very good men in this world. I also had a wonderful, loving father and have a son and son-in-law who are supportive of their wives‘ careers as well as being loving husbands and fathers. My four grandsons are pretty terrific too.

But when it comes to the issue of Jewish divorce and the suffering of women who are unable to be released from non-existent or unwanted marriages, I must admit that the BBC reporter may have been right. So long as the issue of divorce in Israel is controlled by the Orthodox religious establishment which is made up of men only, the problem is THE MEN. Somehow they don’t seem to be able to solve the problem of agunot, and yesterday’s farce at the Bet Din in Jerusalem proves they are unable or unwilling to do so.

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By Sharon Shenhav


As a senior women’s rights lawyer based in Jerusalem, I ask myself this question regularly. In the process of representing hundreds of women in the Batei Din of Israel during the last three decades, I have been witness to the awful pain and suffering of these Jewish women who are „chained“ to a non-existent or unwanted marriage. Why? Because their greedy or vindictive husbands refuse to consent to a religious divorce. As we all know, a Jewish divorce requires the consent of the husband.

While the problem is particularly serious in Israel where civil divorce is unavailable because all matters of marriage and divorce are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Rabbinical Courts, agunot are found in every Jewish community worldwide. UK agunot have been featured in several documentary films and their tragic stories are regularly published in the Jewish press. Probably the worst case in recent years involved a London area woman who obtained a civil divorce after just a few years of marriage, but was denied a get by her recalcitrant husband for almost 50 years! Unable to remarry, she was finally released from this non-existent marriage recently when her husband died. She described her ordeal in a documentary film on agunot which was produced by Channel 4 a few years ago, painfully relating her lost opportunities to remarry, her loneliness and her desire to have had more children, providing siblings for her only daughter.

Despite the best efforts of community leaders and women’s rights activists, the Jewish community was unable to free this woman to remarry. Leading rabbis and dayanim tried to convince the recalcitrant husband to release his wife, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Sadly, we all know of similar cases where husbands hold their wives hostage for many years, often demanding exorbitant amounts of money in order for these women to obtain their freedom. As the divorce rate rises in the Jewish community, it seems that some men see the breakup of their marriage as an opportunity to obtain undeserved financial benefit by withholding the get until their demands are met.

Throughout Jewish history, we have had courageous, compassionate and creative rabbis who found Halachic solutions to the problem of agunot and managed to free these women to remarry. These solutions have been studied and promoted by scholars, rabbis, lawyers, judges and women’s rights activists. Professor Bernard Jackson and his colleagues at the University of Manchester have published well documented research on solutions applied over centuries. Nonetheless, agunot continue to suffer. A few months ago I lectured in the US at the screening of a new documentary film on agunot entitled „Women Unchained“ before Jewish audiences in many cities. During the discussion following the screening, many participants asked the same question: „Why can’t our religious leaders solve the problem?“.

This film was screened at the Limmud program in December, 2012 in the UK. A lively discussion followed, with several participants describing friends, neighbors or relatives who had been agunot.

The audience expressed anger and frustration, asking why this problem still exists and why we tolerate such injustice within our community.

US women have undertaken to increase the representation of women in leadership positions within n the Jewish community and have made substantial progress. They are justly proud of the fact that women have been appointed to the committee which will choose the next Chief Rabbi.

Having served for six years as the only woman on the Israeli Commission n to Appoint Dayanim, from 2003-2009, I know how important a woman’s viewpoint and voice can be in the selecting of learned, creative and compassionate dayanim. My male colleagues on the commission, including the two Chief Rabbis and two dayanim from the Bet Din Hagadol, were helped to understand that women’s organizations and women’s rights activists may have a different way of evaluating dayanim and that women’s input is vital to improving the Jewish divorce process.

Despite these achievements, however, Jewish divorce places so much power in the hands of the husband that his recalcitrance continues to produce agunot. Shamefully, too many Jewish women are still being denied their basic right to marry when and whom they wish. As a community concerned about increasing our members, we seem to tolerate the fact that agunot are unable to bear children. This is a personal loss for the agunot and a loss to the whole Jewish community of unborn children.

The time has come for the UK Jewish community to find solutions to the plight of agunot and end this terrible injustice that is unique to Jewish women.

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Sharon Shenhav is a Jerusalem based women’s rights lawyer. She is the Director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of ICJW (International Council of Jewish Women) and lectures widely on the problems of agunot and the Jewish divorce process. She was the only woman who served two terms on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim as the elected representative of the Israel Bar Association from 2003-2009.

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