It was a bright, sunny morning, but in my soul, I felt anything but. I donned a conservative outfit, long skirt and sleeves that felt at odds with the heat outside and drove a familiar route along Bathurst Street, passing a variety of synagogue buildings. None of them were my destination, though. I was heading to the Orthodox beit din. My heart was heavy. I was going through a difficult divorce.
My father had died unexpectedly en route home the previous Pesach, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to say goodbye. My mother was suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s, so my father had been the sole parent I could speak to. He had always been a strong, male figure in my life – intelligent, sage, loving, funny, and also very learned. He’d always answered religious questions with patience and pleasure, the extended family turning to him with all such matters. Our routine phone calls reminded me that the mere sound of my voice could brighten someone’s day. I needed him more than ever just then.
At the beit din, the room was large and furnished plainly. There were several men present. The atmosphere was neither cruel nor compassionate. The bearded rabbi exuded the prerequisite power and presence. He spoke to me comfortably, even mentioning his own daughter several times, in a Fiddler-like fashion. But each time, he added, “God forbid she should be in your situation.” Each repetition seared my gut. There I sat, fatherless, husbandless and powerless, while the highest authority in the room decried my situation as something awful. His words made me feel like an outcast.
Notwithstanding our many differences, my then-husband and I were a like-minded team entering a mysterious and foreign environment. He recalls: “I found it sexist… The fact that it [the get] was mine to grant or refuse contributes to the subjugation of women.” I agree. Although we both attended and shared the cost of the get, the document plainly states: “This certificate applies only to the man above-mentioned and is not to be taken as evidence regarding the status of his wife.”
I’m no expert, just someone with a sub-par experience. So I asked another woman who had been through the get process for her reaction to my story.
“This rings completely true to me,” she said. “Every emotion. On that day, I was made to feel that the beit din saw me as much less equal. I wish that I had brought a companion. I wish that you were there with me. I wish that I could have been there for you.”
To be honest, on my own get day, I didn’t expect any compassion from a rabbi whom I’d never met. However, I could have used comfort, acceptance, guidance and hope. At the very least, I deserved dignity and respect.
And yet, I never considered any alternative but the Orthodox beit din. I respected it as the ultimate religious authority. Moreover, I knew a couple who had run into difficulty getting married in Israel because the bride’s get was not Orthodox. There seemed no reason not to go this route and thereby avoid any potential challenge. Still, knowing what I now know, I would certainly explore whether a Conservative or Reform beit din might offer a more supportive process.
Unfortunately, once you know how a get works, it’s no great leap to imagine that the process may not be female-friendly. For me, it was an icy blast on a hot June day.