In Israel, Jewish Divorce Is Granted Only By Husband's Permission : Parallels An Israeli film playing in the U.S. shows how rabbinical rules regulating Jewish divorces in Israel can trap women. Rabbinical judges have taken the highly unusual step of seeing the film themselves.
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In Israel, Jewish Divorce Is Granted Only By Husband's Permission

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In Israel, Jewish Divorce Is Granted Only By Husband's Permission

In Israel, Jewish Divorce Is Granted Only By Husband's Permission

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Israel, where religious law governs family matters. For a Jewish divorce, an Orthodox rabbi oversees a ritual that begins with the husband placing a folded decree into the wife's cupped hands. But that paper can be hard to get because the husband can refuse to grant the divorce. A new Israeli film playing in the U.S. shows how patriarchal Jewish divorce laws can trap even secular women for years. NPR's Emily Harris reports from Jerusalem.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The film is a drama called, "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem." Viviane wants a divorce but needs her husband's permission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

HARRIS: The scene is a small courtroom, one couple and their advocates in front of three Orthodox rabbis. In Israel, if you're Jewish - even if you're not religious - you have to be divorced by Jewish law. But rabbi judges cannot decree a divorce. Ronit Elkabetz co-directed the film and plays the lead role.

RONIT ELKABETZ: How come that a woman's freedom is at the mercy of her husband? That law was written, I don't know, maybe 4,000 years ago. But it's put the woman in a place that they became invisible and helpless and, most of the time, completely dependent on their husband's will.

HARRIS: In the film, the rabbis urge the wife to make up with her husband. They do nothing as he skips repeated hearings. After several years, Viviane Amsalem breaks out in a fury.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM")

ELKABETZ: (As Viviane Amsalem, speaking Hebrew).

HARRIS: "One day, someone will take the power from your hands," she yells, "skullcaps on your heads. Rabbinical court, it's over." Orthodox religious rule over many parts of life is a growing tension in Israel. And becoming irrelevant is a real worry of Israel's rabbinical judges. In an unprecedented move, they decided to watch this film. Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi is a legal adviser to the courts.

RABBI SHIMON YAAKOBI: (Through interpreter) I thought it's important that we understand how we're being perceived and why. It's clear not everyone in Israel shares the values of the rabbinical court. But within religious law, we'll do everything we can to help.

HARRIS: You have to understand, these rabbinical judges hardly ever watch movies. They study Jewish religious and legal texts all day most days. This guides their lives and their court decisions. After the special showing, Rabbi Yaakobi said he did not like what he saw.

YAAKOBI: (Through interpreter) This is not our court. Our judges are not like that.

HARRIS: The movie showed the judges so indifferent to the woman's distress, it shocked the real-life judges, he said. They resolve, he said, 90 percent of their cases within a year - not all.

RAIA DENNINBERG: My name is Raia. I am 64 years old.

HARRIS: Raia Denninberg has in real life spent 28 years, more than a third of her life, trying to get divorced. Israeli civil courts approved dividing the couple's property. But then, her husband disappeared. The rabbis in religious court were kind, she said, but they could do nothing.

DENNINBERG: You cannot get a divorce without the husband.

HARRIS: Busy with kids and work, she let things go. Then, last year, she got a lien on her car because her estranged husband owes somebody money. She's gone back to the rabbis, her only path to freedom.

DENNINBERG: I am free, but I don't feel free, you know.

HARRIS: If the court finds her husband, they can put him in jail. A Jewish man also needs his wife's permission to divorce. But without it, he can live with another woman and have children recognized as Jewish in Israel, while she cannot. Some things are changing. Advocates are trying to make separated a legal civil status. Rachel Levmore was among the first women to serve as a lawyer in front of the rabbis. She says Jewish law is designed to evolve. But divorce law got stuck a few hundred years ago.

RACHEL LEVMORE: The rabbis - the rabbis themselves are afraid to change it. They'll say to you outright, no matter how great a rabbi you think he is, he doesn't think he's a great rabbi. He will say, I can't possibly change what others have decreed before me. I am a mouse compared to their stature.

HARRIS: From the perspective of this film, though, they are giants. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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