On Faith

Ancient Divorce Laws' Modern Quandary

Protesters outside the Gaithersburg home of Sam Rosenbloom included Rabbi David Gottlieb, front left, and David Lefkowitz, front right, both of Baltimore.
Protesters outside the Gaithersburg home of Sam Rosenbloom included Rabbi David Gottlieb, front left, and David Lefkowitz, front right, both of Baltimore. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Sarah Rosenbloom is stuck in a marital netherworld. She and her husband divorced seven years ago in Maryland civil court. But she remains married under Jewish law because he has refused to give her a religious divorce document known in Hebrew as a get .

She can't date, let alone remarry, without violating the tenets of her faith -- and the 44-year-old Orthodox Jew is not about to take that step.

"I truly believe it would be a terrible thing if I acted like I had a get ," said Rosenbloom, an English teacher who lives in Baltimore. "Do I question my faith? Sure. Do I rail against God? Sure. I can always question, but I am not going to give up my Judaism, my religiosity."

Her case illustrates a growing debate among Orthodox Jews and members of other faiths over whether ancient religious laws governing divorce need to be adapted to the modern era. Devout people of all faiths are seeking divorce in higher numbers, experts say, which is putting pressure on religious authorities to loosen restrictions.

Rosenbloom's predicament would have been unusual in an earlier time. Although Jewish law bars a woman from getting a divorce without her husband's consent, she may bring her case to a religious court. The courts in the past could pressure a man who denied his wife a divorce by ordering Jews to boycott his business or barring him access to synagogue.

But such methods are not as effective in an Orthodox Jewish community that has become much more dispersed. Rosenbloom's ex-husband, Sam, who said he is still upset at her after a bitter custody fight, simply ignored the summons from Baltimore's Jewish court and moved to Gaithersburg. He also disregarded a ruling from the same court holding him in contempt.

Women in Rosenbloom's situation are called agunah in Hebrew, which means "chained woman." There are no official figures on the number of agunah, but the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot -- a New York-based group that organizes pickets in front of the houses and businesses of men who refuse to give their wives divorces -- said it has been involved in about 100 cases since it formed less than three years ago. There are thousands of such women in New York alone, according to group member Yehoshua Zev.

Faced with these contemporary quagmires, some Jewish officials are bending and reinterpreting religious law in an effort to join divine purpose with modern mores.

Several Jewish courts in recent years have annulled marriages in cases similar to the Rosenblooms', citing evidence that the marriage was fraudulent -- a misrepresentation by one of the spouses, for example. Many rabbis have criticized those rulings, however, and warned that women who remarry in such cases will be guilty of adultery.

A growing number of Orthodox Jews are signing prenuptial agreements -- documents enforceable in U.S. civil courts -- that require both sides in any future divorce proceeding to use the religious court system and abide by its ruling.

The Beth Din of America, the nation's largest Jewish court, handles more than 300 divorces a year, a number that has been rising steadily, said Rabbi Yona Reiss, the organization's president. Despite its name, the Beth Din of America has no more authority than such local courts as the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington and the Bais Din in Baltimore. The decentralized judicial system has added to the lack of consensus on the issue.

Among Muslims, the rules surrounding divorce vary widely according to interpretation of sharia , or Islamic law. In some parts of the world, only a man can end a marriage -- unless he has legally shared that right with his wife. In other places, a woman can bring the matter before a court. Islamic legal authorities have begun expanding the circumstances in which a court can hear a divorce as well as the legitimate grounds for divorce to include, for example, incompatibility.

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