This week, along with the rest of you, I read the words of Gital, a chained woman or Agunah as she publicly pleaded for a Jewish divorce from her husband. But this isn’t about Get. I’ve written about Get before. This is about what has become of Jewish dating and marriage in certain, mainly ultra-Orthodox, circles.
Reading her words, I was struck by the brokenness of a system and how it can lead directly to tragedies like Gital’s. In these circles, every young man and woman has a resume where all pertinent information is written: family lineage (often including information on siblings and other family members), education, background, character traits, looks, earning potential etc. The unquantifiable is quantified and people are dehumanized, forced onto a scale and what best adjectives a well-meaning mother can find in a thesaurus.
Matchmakers match based on criteria—mostly yichus (lineage)—parents vet and approve. The young people meet in a public place over a soda or coffee and try and get to know one another beyond the paper. Then they report back to those in charge.
Gital speaks of the pressure she felt to continue dating her husband after the second date even though she didn’t want to.
“I told the matchmaker I wanted to stop seeing him…My parents asked me to think about it because his parents were so insistent …In Orthodox dating, you rely a lot on what other people tell you—So I gave him another chance.”
So, they dated further. And so they married.
Marriage begins after the last guest has gone home and the door to the honeymoon suite closes. Truly alone for the first time, the couple will completely reverse the trends they lived for years; of not touching or being intimate with someone of the opposite sex (a topic for another post but one very important to this conversation) and begin their lives as man and wife .
In these circles, birth control is eschewed. Having a large family is paramount—it is why you marry. For many, like Gital, pregnancy comes quickly. If the couple is lucky, they have a few months to get to know one another before morning sickness, fatigue and all of the other symptoms and pressures of pregnancy impose themselves.
If the man is a full time learner, often the wife is the breadwinner. In a matter of months, she’s adjusting to being a wife, working full time and being pregnant. She is exhausted and perhaps afraid. He is at best a bit lost but compassionate and at worst unable to sympathize and resentful.
The way I see it, to strengthen Jewish marriages and families, three things can and should be put into immediate effect.
1- The dating process must change.
No longer should women be a series of numbers and one word answers—modest, quiet, wealthy, thin, employable. No longer should men be son of son of son of, an incredible learner in…
A person’s character, soul, dreams, and smile cannot be put on paper.
Young people need more autonomy. They must not be pressured to continue to date someone they do not want to! Why would parents not listen to their daughter, who after spending hours with a person has decided he is not for her? Why are other people’s opinions more important than their own child’s?
What kind of decision makers and parents are we building if we don’t allow them to learn and make decisions, trust their gut and deduce conclusions from observed behaviors?
There is a middle ground between the stale shidduch style above and the bar/hookup culture. Social settings where young men and women can meet more naturally can be very good things. Kids should be trusted to function according to the values with which they were raised.
Matchmakers can still advise and recommend, but this cold system needs to be revised and young people need more control over their lives.
I daresay that had Gital had the ability to meet and judge and reject her husband on these terms, had her voice been heard, the marriage and subsequent misery she has endured would not have happened.
2- There should be a suggested 6-12 month period of using birth control from the start of the marriage.
It is wrong not to give a young couple the chance to get to know one another before becoming jointly responsible for another human being. Judaism places the highest value on children. They are not just a commandment to be filled, they are people and should be born to parents who have a gained a bit of perspective and maturity, who are ready for that step together, and who can properly support those children emotionally and physically. Heterim should be given for the purpose of making stronger marriages and better parents.
I once met a woman at the Beit Din. She was young and ultra-Orthodox. As I watched her tiny daughter toddle between her and her husband, I thought perhaps she was in the wrong place. I told her this was the area for divorces. She told me that she and her husband were married a few years but were now divorcing. They agreed that they should never have gotten married.
Many couples stay married and weather the tough times together. But wouldn’t it be great if the couple had time to get to know one another, build bonds and create a partnership before meeting the challenges of starting a family and all that comes with it? Might that not make for easier starts, stronger partnerships, healthier children, and yes, make it clear to some that they just should not be married BEFORE children are pulled into the mess?
Had Gital been advised to wait six months before starting a family, she would have been able to leave Avraham before becoming pregnant and having a child in the midst of this war.
3. Every Jewish couple getting married should sign a Halachic prenuptial agreement and every Rav worth his smicha should refuse to marry couples without one.
A step was lost between Gital’s dating and her marriage. That step would have protected both parties. Had Gital and Avraham signed a Halachic Prenuptial agreement, which calls for sanctions against a husband for refusal to provide a get and a wife for refusal to accept one, he could not wield it against her and prevent her from having a life.
Like me, Gital may have been assured by her Rav that it was unnecessary. Perhaps she was told that it wasn’t “kosher.” Most likely, she was told nothing at all. Jewish marriage is a sacred thing. It is a thing of respect, love, hope and partnership. It is dreams born over thousands of years and strength of a people millennia old. It is holy and it is good. And when it is used as a way to gain status or finances, as a way to hurt and control and manipulate and punish, it is a stain on us all.
The system is broken and it needs to be fixed.
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is an American Israeli, mom, nonprofit consultant, lover of chocolate and seeker of truth. She and her family made aliyah from Teaneck in 2007.
By Shoshanna Jaskoll, The Times of Israel