A religious court is only allowed to force a man against his will to divorce his wife in specific situations. The exact parameters carry tremendous weight, because an improper stringency will trap women in potentially extortionary situations and an improper leniency will invalidate the divorce and render any future children illegitimate. In this essay from Kol HaRav (link), R. David Bigman (bio) argues on halakhic grounds that current standards are overly strict.
Over the opposition of women’s organizations, the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinic Judges recently selected Rabbi Nahum Prover to serve on the Supreme Rabbinical Court. According to these women’s organizations, Rabbi Prover uses a strict religious approach that is consistently against women. While I cannot speak to this general characterization of R. Prover’s approach, in the following lines I want to analyze the main halakhic source on which he and many other judges in the rabbinic courts base themselves when they refrain from forcing recalcitrant husbands to proffer a get.
I am speaking of a responsum penned by the 16th century sage, Rabbi Shmuel ben Moshe de Medina ( Responsa Maharshdam, Even HaEzer 41). In this responsum, the Maharshdam addresses an extraordinary story involving the details of the laws of divorce and levirate marriage. Unfortunately, this source is misapplied by many contemporary rabbinic court judges who fail to appreciate a number of central issues in this responsum.
The question that came to the door of the Maharshdam describes a complex and fascinating family situation and a moving human story. At the center of this story is a girl who was betrothed to a boy her age who died unexpectedly. Because the two had not married, the girl of course was left with no children. Therefore, the boy’s brother (the yavam), an older man with a wife and children, became obligated either to marry this girl through the mitzvah of yibum or to perform the rite of chalitzah and thereby permit her to marry another man.
Continued here: link