Trapped by Tradition: A Review of Award-Winning Israeli Film "Gett"

March 10, 2015Aron Hirt-Manheimer

In the riveting courtroom drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the titular character is not the only one on trial. Viviane Amsalem’s husband Elisha, the actual defendant, has been called before the beit din (rabbinic tribunal) for refusing to grant Viviane a get (a divorce) after three years of separation. The beit din is under scrutiny for having allowed the case to drag on for five years, prolonging Viviane’s torment. More broadly, Israel’s legal system stands accused of denying its citizens the civil right of marriage and divorce.

Viviane, played by Ronit Elkabetz, personifies the perennial crisis of the agunah (“chained woman”) in Orthodox Jewish life. Halachah (Jewish law) prescribes that the only way to dissolve a Jewish marriage is by the husband’s granting his wife a get. If he is absent or unwilling to do so, his wife remains an agunah, unable to remarry. It is not uncommon for the husband of an agunah to demand an exorbitant payment to release her from the bonds of a failed marriage. If the wife were to take another husband without first obtaining a get, her second marriage would be deemed adulterous and their offspring would be stigmatized in the Orthodox world as mamzerim (outcasts) and barred from marrying in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. 

A woman in this situation, such as Viviane, may petition the beit din to obligate her husband to grant her a divorce. The judges must then determine grounds for a divorce, such as neglect or abuse. However, even if the court finds just cause, it cannot issue a bill of divorcement without the husband’s consent.

Viviane’s grievance does not fall neatly into any of the preordained grounds for a divorce. When pressed by the chief judge for the reason she will not go home to her husband, she says simply, “We are not compatible.”

Elisha, played by Simon Ebkarian, is mostly silent, sitting expressionless throughout most of the trial. We are left to ponder: If Elisha loves Viviane, as he claims, why does she find him so unbearable after 30 years of marriage and raising four children? Why does he deliberately prolong the case by failing to show up for court time and again? What does he hope to gain by denying his estranged wife a divorce?

We also wonder why Vivian, who no longer dresses in modest Orthodox fashion, is willing to suffer the humiliation and indignities of a trial in which her moral character is repeatedly impugned by Elisha’s male defenders and by the three white-bearded rabbinic judges who are more committed to preserving the marriage than liberating an agunah.

After years of wavering and indecision, the judges order Elisha jailed for his three consecutive court absences. While incarcerated, he agrees to grant the divorce, but he changes his mind in court. The chief judge then announces the court can do no more. Infuriated, Viviane lashes out at the judges: “I could drop dead in front of you, and all you would see is him…You don’t care about me. There’s a God and there’s justice. And He’ll judge you as you judge me…. One day somebody will take the power from you.”

Shocked by the outburst, the chief judge bans Viviane from the court. Several months later, she is permitted to return because Elisha, for reasons unknown, agrees to grant her the divorce.

In the presence of the judges and witnesses, Viviane cups her hands to receive the divorce document as instructed. Elisha then begins to recite the traditional get pronouncement, and all goes well until he must repeat the words, “And you are hereby permitted to any man.” Elisha stalls, stutters, and finally admits, “I can’t.” The judges give up and clear the court.

Before they leave the building, Elisha asks to speak to Viviane privately. In their first direct conversation, he exacts his price for her liberation, and Viviane makes her decision.

Though this film cannot solve the real-life agunah crisis or break the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel, the trial of Viviane Amsalem brings us face to face with one of the great injustices committed against countless Jewish women from biblical times to our own day.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, written and directed by brother-sister team Shlomi and Ronit Elkabezt as the third of a trilogy (To Take a Wife, 7 Days), won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture in 2014. In Hebrew, French, and Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 115 minutes.

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