After Bellagio/

Sharon Shenhav

Sharon Shenhav has been a practicing lawyer since joining a small firm in Washington D.C. in 1969, specializing in defending prisoners’ civil rights. In 1979, she emigrated to Israel and switched her focus to representing women going through divorce proceedings in the country’s Rabbinical courts. She was a resident at Bellagio in May 2002, during which time she continued her research on integrating the concept of universal human rights into religious law.

Following the thought-provoking conversations she had during her residency, in 2004, she co-organized an interfaith convening that brought together religious leaders and legal experts from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Much of my career was dedicated to working with women who were victims of domestic violence dealing with emotional and physical abuse. In so many of my cases, I was recommending divorces and helping the women obtain them. Religious divorce can be very challenging, especially within Jewish law. The basis of Jewish law is taken from the Old Testament, which says that a man can divorce his wife if she doesn’t find favor in his eyes. It doesn’t say anything about a woman divorcing her husband. It’s a one-sided affair. For thousands of years, men have interpreted religious texts, building on an already patriarchal system.

However, there certainly are texts that could be interpreted to say that women had certain rights. In my career, I used a human rights approach to show that women’s rights are not just civil rights, but actually built into these religious systems too. While there have been rabbis of stature who agree, most of them focus on the concept of religious rights rather than civil human rights.

Of course, religious divorce is not just a problem in the Jewish community either. It’s also a problem in the Muslim and Catholic communities. Throughout my career, I discussed this with Muslim and Catholic women’s rights lawyers, and we often found that we were facing many of the same problems – and that we all had the same experience of some solutions being more successful than others.

  • But while I’ve come across some leaders who refuse to speak to women for religious reasons, I’ve also witnessed how intellectual curiosity can overcome personal, political and religious barriers when different parties are willing to engage in conversation.
    Sharon Shenhav

During my residency, there were opportunities to have more informal conversations with the different scholars. One beautiful spring evening, when we were out on the terrace, one of the resident scholars told another, an Ayatollah [a high-ranking Shia clergyman] from Tehran, that a women’s rights lawyer from Israel who was an expert in Jewish marriage and divorce law was present. Apparently, he replied, “I have to talk to her.” As both a Professor of Islamic Law and a judge, he had some questions about Jewish law.

The first was about multiple wives. He knew that, according to the Old Testament, a Jewish man was permitted more than one wife – up to four, aligning with the current laws in Iran – but that all changed 1,100 years ago when Rabbeinu Gershom, a German rabbi, decreed that a Jewish man could only have one wife.

The Ayatollah wanted to know why the law was changed. He argued that there were cases where a woman “doesn’t work” properly. I assumed he was talking about sexual dysfunction, so I asked him if it wouldn’t be better to divorce the wife and allow her to marry someone else. I then asked, “What if it works the other way, where the man’s not working – in other words, he’s impotent? Could a woman have a right to a divorce in a case like that?” He got very upset and he started shrieking, “No, no, no!” At that point, the dinner bell rang, so I suggested we continue the discussion over our meal. He declined.

Yet in the morning, at breakfast, one of the Iranian men came into the room and asked me to talk to the Ayatollah out in the corridor, because he had more questions. This happened at every meal over three days. His intellectual curiosity propelled him to seek me out at great personal risk. The fact that he was talking to a woman at all was unusual, but that I’m Israeli too – after all, Iran and Israel are not exactly friends – was all the more surreal!

In the end, he asked to borrow some of my books. He never elaborated on his intentions, but he would certainly have been in a position to include Jewish divorce law in his classes. He may have previously studied in Europe, but women’s rights were not a part of his experience of Islamic law in Iran, let alone the concept of women lawyers representing women clients in Rabbinical courts and challenging religious judges – the religious leadership controls the interpretation of Sharia law in Iran.

However, I knew the books wouldn’t be enough. He needed to discuss these issues with practitioners, rabbis, and experts in Jewish law – sort of like a workshop or a conference. He thought it was a good idea, “but not in your country and not in my country.” He was right, of course. It wouldn’t be politically possible in either country, so I suggested Bellagio and he agreed. When I got home after my residency, I drafted an application for a conference on marriage and divorce through the lens of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian law. It was accepted!

The attendees were religious leaders, academics, and legal practitioners – including the Ayatollah – who wanted to hear how other religions dealt with the topic of divorce from a women’s rights perspective. The intellectual sincerity, energy, and freshness positively affected my work.

The Bellagio Center lends a freedom to participants so that they can talk to people without worrying about privacy and within an atmosphere of openness and collegiality. It encourages you to overcome the barriers that you might have outside of Bellagio.

After the 2004 convening, the Ayatollah gave me a beautiful black and brown leather briefcase engraved as follows: “International Appreciation of Selected Women,” and “Islamic Culture and Relations Organization” in English and Persian.

As I reflect back on the success of that convening and the dialogue it encouraged, and recognize the ways in which progress still has not been made, I realize there’s an urgent need for another conference where we strategize on how we deal with the increasing religious extremism that is targeting women. Despite the efforts made in the field of human rights law in the 20th century, there’s still so much work to do. In the last 20 years, we’ve gone backward. The people who have religious and political power have become more rigid. I believe that religious extremism has gotten much stronger globally, and it’s affecting the rights of women that we thought we had succeeded in obtaining.

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To find out more about Sharon’s work, read her posts here.