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Ancient Divorce Laws' Modern Quandary

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006; C01

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.

Divorce is forbidden among Catholics, though a marriage can be annulled if a church tribunal rules that it never existed -- if, for example, one party lacked the capacity to consent or it was never consummated. The Vatican issued a streamlined procedure last year for Catholics seeking an annulment. Among the changes was one that allows a church appeals court to uphold an annulment even if it disagrees with the initial tribunal on the reasons the marriage should be voided.

Vatican officials emphasized that the changes were merely bureaucratic and that the grounds for annulments had not changed, although they said the number of annulments granted in the United States has gone from fewer than 350 in 1968 to tens of thousands in recent years.

Southern Baptists launched their own debate about divorce in 2000 when Charles Stanley, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a popular television preacher, got divorced.

Long-standing tradition in that denomination holds that men are disqualified from being pastors once they divorce, based on the biblical mandate that ministers be "blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior." But some questioned how to apply those words, and an official at Stanley's church in Atlanta said to loud applause that Stanley would stay in his position, his "personal pain" having validated his ability to minister.

Debate over divorce has increased in the Orthodox Jewish community as efforts to help such women as Rosenbloom have escalated in recent years. In addition to the use of prenuptials and annulments, New York's legislature has passed laws that put Jewish men who won't grant a religious divorce at a disadvantage in their civil divorce. Maryland lawmakers introduced similar legislation unsuccessfully for four straight years in the late 1990s; opponents said it was an unconstitutional mixing of church and state.

The Jewish Press, one of the nation's largest Jewish newspapers, each week runs the names of men who have divorce-related court orders against them in an effort to embarrass them.

"The agunah problem is a very serious one. [It] is one aspect of a greater recognition of family problems that maybe we've been sweeping under the carpet," said Rabbi Irving Breitowitz, a University of Maryland law professor who wrote a book about agunah. "We are bound by the principles, but we can try to devise new mechanisms."

Among the protests held by agunah advocates was one a week ago at Sam Rosenbloom's home in Gaithersburg. A dozen people came out in the rain and began, as usual, with a prayer from the book of Psalms, asking God to hear their plea.

"Sam Rosenbloom, give your wife a get ," they chanted. The protests started two years ago and have occurred almost weekly for the past month.

But is this what God intended? To Naomi Klass Mauer, an editor at the Jewish Press and a former agunah, the problem is not God or the law but human beings.

"There is no way the intention would be that a woman should be held up," said Mauer, whose ex-husband withheld a get for four years. "But there are a lot of laws I don't fully understand the reason for, but I believe. I believe that the Torah is divine law. Whether or not I can understand everything with my finite ability -- it would be nice. But just because I can't doesn't mean that I am going to discount the law or pick and choose."

Sarah Rosenbloom also said the experience has not shaken her faith. "Can people pervert the law? Yes, and that's what Sam is doing," she said.

Sam Rosenbloom does not see it that way. He believes the Orthodox community took his wife's side because they felt he was not observant enough. Harsh, untrue things were said about him, he said, adding that when Sarah apologizes and tells "the truth," she will get her divorce. To him, that seems in line with God's intention.

"It's not a matter of complying with the [Jewish court] or a Jewish thing at all. It's about me being devalued as a human being," said Rosenbloom, who was raised in the less strict Conservative Jewish denomination. "I personally look to religion as a moral compass. But I am an independent thinker."

His ex-wife said she sees religion more as a rule book than a compass.

"Look, I don't think it's supposed to be that we say, 'This is God's will,' and we just sit there. I think we are supposed to put forth our maximum effort," she said, noting that in addition to the protests in front of her ex-husband's house, several Maryland rabbis have told their congregants not to buy from an Internet site on which he sells religious goods. "And I pray. I pray a lot."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company