Loosen the chains:
Changes to Jewish divorce law in the UK
Religious divorce in Judaism can have damaging effects on Jewish women. However, new legal amendments in the UK will hopefully provide better protection for Jewish women who become trapped in marriages.
In March 2021, the UK government announced that it will introduce new amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The Bill was first established to improve the British justice system’s ability ‘to provide better protection to victims of domestic abuse’. These new amendments are aimed at extending the legislation’s reach, continuing to supply protection and ‘further clamp down on perpetrators’.
While these amendments will hopefully have a positive impact on the wide variety of victims of domestic abuse, they will also have a specific effect on the British Jewish community. This is because one of the adjustments of the Domestic Abuse Bill will state that a Jewish man who refuses a get (a religious divorce in Judaism) will now be ‘clearly recognised as exerting controlling and coercive behaviour’, which is listed as a criminal offence under the Serious Crime Act of 2015.
Experts believe that this landmark change will make it easier to take legal action against male perpetrators and for Jewish women to receive substantial legal recognition for the suffering they have experienced. This article will outline the complexities of religious divorce in Judaism, the damaging effects it can have on Jewish women, and how this new legal ruling may help to better protect such women in the future.
Understanding a get
According to biblical law, in Judaism, a married couple who decide to divorce are only released from marriage when a document of divorce is given by the husband to his wife. This document is known as a get. Once the get is given by husband to wife in front of witnesses, the woman is then free from the marriage. Importantly in the UK, a get alone will not be recognised by the English courts, therefore, the couple must obtain both a Jewish and civil divorce. But equally, a civil divorce cannot serve as a substitute for a religious get. Therefore, in the UK, both forms of divorce must exist in connection with each other.
The implications of get refusal for women
Considering the conditions outlined above, there can be many damaging consequences of get refusal for Jewish women.
In Judaism, a woman who cannot obtain a divorce because her husband refuses to grant her a get becomes known as an agunah (meaning ‘chained’ in Hebrew). Therefore, agunot are not only forced to remain married to a man they no longer want to be with, but they are also not able to remarry. While historically a woman often became an agunah when her husband vanished, in the 21st century, it is very unlikely for a husband to completely disappear. Instead, a Jewish woman often becomes an agunah because her uncooperative husband refuses the divorce, sometimes based on financial disputes or custody arrangements. Therefore, even though it is common for an agunah to live apart and separately from her estranged husband, she remains ‘chained to an unwanted marriage’.
The consequences of get refusal and becoming an agunah are incredibly painful and isolating for Jewish women. For example, even if a Jewish woman obtains a civil divorce and has a child with another Jewish man, the child will be deemed a mamzer (an illegitimate child). This is because without the granting a get, she still remains married to her husband. Being a mother of a mamzer carries a significant stigma in Judaism and the mamzer will likely suffer ‘very severe and tragic restrictions in later life’, a consideration that often leads a Jewish woman to feel trapped and unable to move on with her life.
Welcomed with open arms
Knowledge of the repercussions that get refusal can have on Jewish women is not new and has been an issue within the worldwide Jewish community for centuries. However, in recent years, several high-profile cases of get refusal in Europe and the US have prompted interest. Campaigners have been working to highlight how get refusal must be seen as a form of abuse.  
Arguably, this campaigning and the subsequent increased awareness have been influential in the recent amendments to the UK Domestic Abuse Bill which will now state that get refusal is considered as a form of abuse. Importantly, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, who was recently appointed as a Justice Minister, stressed that a “hierarchy of abuse” must not exist and instead the Bill will make a distinction between different forms of abuse, including spiritual abuse. The amendment will also make it easier to bring a get refuser to court as it will state that abuse can, and often does, still take place even if the couple are no longer living together. Moreover, if a get refuser is convicted of coercive behaviour, they can now face up to five years in prison. 
The amendment has been welcomed with open arms by many within the Jewish community. Baroness Altmann, an Orthodox Jewish woman and member of the House of Lords, says that she hoped the changes will “assist rabbinic courts, so that fewer men will play these kinds of cruel games.” Moreover, Naomi Dickson, CEO of UK organisation Jewish Women’s Aid, said she is “so pleased” this kind of abuse is being acknowledged. However, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill believes that the new legal measures are still “not enough” and expressed his concerns that the changes will not give enough protections to mamzer children.
Visions of a more hopeful future
This article has outlined the issue of get refusal within Judaism and the devastating impacts it often has on Jewish women. However, the arrival of new amendments to the UK Domestic Abuse Bill represents a light at the end of the tunnel. As Joanne Greenway, former get case director at the London Beth Din stated, hopefully these legal changes will “see additional protections for these victims of abuse.” Moreover, there is hope that, in the long term, the new legal implications of get refusal will highlight the severity of the action and prevent further cases from arising in the UK.
Interested in similar topics? Go to our Dashboard and get free updates.
 A rabbinical court in Judaism.