By Jewish law, only men have the power to end a religious marriage.
If Balassiano were to wed again, her union would be considered adultery by the Orthodox Jewish community. Her future children would be labeled mamzerim — bastards — and therefore not able to marry other Orthodox Jews.
Balassiano’s limbo status makes her an agunah . Translation: a chained woman.
“I am upset. I want this to end,” said the mother of three who has been separated from her husband for four years. “He doesn’t want to give me up.”
Women have suffered Balassiano’s plight for thousands of years. The origin of Jewish divorce can be found in Deuteronomy 24:1, which states a man must give his wife a bill of divorce to sever their ties.
“No woman should be put into this situation,” said Blu Greenberg, the founder of the
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance — which calls the agunah problem “one of the greatest crises in the Orthodox world today.”
Once a topic rarely discussed beyond religious circles, it has lately exploded on to the national scene.
Aharon Friedman, a tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Dave Camp, is refusing to give Tamar Epstein a get even though the couple have been civilly divorced for two years.
An advocacy group, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) has organized a full-throttle effort to free Epstein. The New York-based nonprofit has staged multiple protests in front of Friedman’s home in Maryland and at his relatives’ homes in Brooklyn.
ORA has even taken its battle to Capitol Hill, promoting a social media campaign urging Rep. Camp to condemn Friedman’s refusal to give Epstein a get.
“We consider the withholding of a get a form of domestic abuse,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the executive director of ORA, which is currently working on about 70 agunah cases, the majority of them in the New York area. “Domestic abuse is about control. Abuse is not just about black and blue marks.”
A recent survey puts the number of agunot in North America over the past five years at 462, though that likely underrepresents the true extent of shackled wives.
In many instances, men use get refusal as a bargaining chip in disputes over matters like money or custody.
“A lot of victims of abuse give up many important rights in order to get a religious divorce,” Nataneli said. “Many women who need an order of protection won’t do it. They are terrified.”
Maurice Balassiano, 50, said he will give his wife a get, but only after she agrees to certain things in their civil divorce.
“I am willing, but there must be a settlement first, then she will get it,” said Balassiano. “She has to give me what I want.”
“As the Jewish community has become more affluent, there is more to fight over,” Aranoff said.
New York State has passed laws aimed at removing barriers to religious remarriage. But as a practical matter, they have had limited benefits.
Barrocas said he had a number of grievances against his
ex-wife that justified his refusal to give her a get.
By Phyllis Furman / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS