The Blog

When a Jew Is Banned From Synagogue....

The real tragedy is that the Abayahoudayan case not a unique one, for over the years several hundred Jewish woman in Britain have been held to ransom by former spouses.

This strange story is not a case of anti-semitism, but a mix of individual obstinacy and rabbinic rage.

Last week's Jewish Chronicle (6 November) contained the picture of a Jewish man named as Mr John Abayahoudayan, with the sombre announcement that he was to be refused entry into any synagogue under the authority of the Chief Rabbi. Never before has such a step been taken in Britain.

The ban on Abayahoudayan was because he had been divorced from his wife in 2002 in the civil courts, but had refused to grant her a get - a religious divorce. This relates to the fact that when one is married in synagogue, it is usually both a civil and a religious ceremony, with the couple signing both a registry office document and a Jewish one. If the marriage collapses, the couple need to undo both parts, with the civil divorce ending the civil contract and the get ending the religious contract.

However, here lies a religious fault-line: if there is a civil divorce, but the Jewish part is not done too, then if the woman wants to remarry, she cannot do so Jewishly in synagogue. Moreover, because of the way, the law is worded in the Bible - "he shall write her a divorce" (Deuteronomy 24.3) - the onus, according to Orthodox interpretation, is on the man: only he can give the get, the woman cannot do so, while Jewish courts cannot force the man against his wishes.

Why would someone already divorced civilly from his wife want to withhold the Jewish part? In some cases, the answer is malice: bearing in mind that few divorces are amicable, witholding the get is a way that some former husbands try to seek revenge on their ex-wife and prevent them from starting a new life with someone else.

Alternatively, the motive is financial: if the ex-husband feels aggrieved at the divorce settlement, he might refuse to grant the get unless some monetary compensation was given in exchange.

Both scenarios are immoral and reprehensible, but because the Orthodox rabbinate is powerless to intervene, a woman without a get is, religiously speaking, 'chained' to her ex-husband. Moreover, even if she opts for just a civil marriage, according to Orthodox law, without a get, she is still married Jewishly to her first husband and so the subsequent marriage will be bigamous and any children will be illegitimate.

This is a highly undesirable situation, and in fact a former Chief Rabbi - Dr Joseph Hertz - declared back in the 1930s: "In this respect, Jewish law suffers from arrested development". The best that the authorities can do is try to persuade the husband or, as in this latest case, attempt to embarass him through a public advert.

Rabbis who are part of the Movement for Reform Judaism hold that an immoral law cannot be a Jewish law. We hold that if a couple have been civilly divorced and are no longer living together, then there is no reason not to separate Jewishly too, while malice or blackmail cannot be tolerated. If the male is not acting like a Jewish man of integrity should act, then he has lost his right to grant the get. The Reform rabbinate therefore awards the get over the head of the recalcitrant ex-husband and allows the woman to marry in any of its synagogues, while the children are without any taint of illegitimacy.

The real tragedy is that the Abayahoudayan case not a unique one, for over the years several hundred Jewish woman in Britain have been held to ransom by former spouses. Publicly naming and shaming them is long overdue, as is reform of Jewish law by rabbis that wring their hands but fail to take decisive action to free 'the chained women'.