Why Are These Orthodox Women Activists Pledging to Hold a ‘Sex Strike?’

Everything you need to know about Malky Berkowitz and her supporters.

This article originally ran on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Orthodox women activists are pledging to withhold sex from their husbands as they escalate a public campaign to help one of their own obtain a religious divorce from her husband after four years of trying.

Supporters of Malky Berkowitz, 29, are launching what they are calling a “mikvah strike” — a form of protest that leverages Jewish sexual purity rituals as a pressure tactic. It begins on Friday night and could be extended.

Wait, what’s a mikvah?

According to traditional Jewish law, following menstruation, married women must immerse in a mikvah, or ritual bath, before they can have sex with their husbands — which many do later that night. In fact, some authorities say that Jewish law, or halacha, attaches special significance to the intimacy that follows immersion, requiring that it take place without delay.

For Adina Sash, an advocate for Jewish women whose estranged husbands are refusing to divorce them ritually, that makes post-mikvah sex a natural site of protest.

OK, so tell me more about the sex strike.

For the last seven weeks, Sash — an Orthodox feminist activist in Brooklyn known by her Instagram handle, Flatbush Girl — has led a team of activists, lawyers, and community leaders pursuing a “get,” or Jewish divorce document, for Berkowitz. Berkowitz’s husband, Volvy, is refusing to issue the get that would complete their divorce, making her what is known as an “agunah,” or “chained woman” who cannot remarry under Jewish law.

Sash believes that Orthodox women need to negotiate and formalize Jewish legal terms around divorce before getting married — and that those who don’t run the risk of one day having a divorce withheld, widely understood to be a form of abuse.

“You need to stand with us on this mikvah strike and withhold sex on mikvah nights or on mitzvah night on every Friday night until Malky is free as a way of showing your compassion for Malky,” she said, addressing her fellow Orthodox women. (Jewish tradition encourages married couples to have sex on Shabbat, and some in the Orthodox world refer to that time as “mitzvah night” for that reason.)

She said the objective is to get men in the community to take action on Berkowitz’s behalf.

“When your husband says, ‘Why?’ say, ‘I could be the next agunah until Malky is free. I could be the next agunah. Please call your rabbi and figure out a way to help free Malky,” she said.

Is there precedent for this sort of thing?

The protest echoes the sex strike in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the Greek comedy where the women of Athens refrained from sleeping with their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian War. Sex strikes have been used successfully to effect change in contemporary communities, for example ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003 when the country’s women participated. Leymah Gdowbee, the organizer of the Liberian sex strike, later won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Orthodox women have reportedly embarked on similar protests at a small scale in the past, such as in Canada several decades ago. But protest on behalf of agunot has more recently centered on public demonstrations, rabbinic suasion and, increasingly, social media campaigns like those run by Sash. Sash’s contributions have been successful — earlier this week, she was in the room as Esther Eisenmann-Lauber, an agunah separated from her husband for six years, finally received her get.

Asked whether Malky Berkowitz has any thoughts on the strike, Sash said only, “Malky has no comment.”

ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, was established in 2002 precisely to facilitate Jewish divorces, and the organization also provides halachic prenuptial agreements that place a penalty on get refusal and abide by Jewish law. A representative for ORA did not return JTA’s requests for comment on the sex strike.

What has the response been?

After Sash formally announced the call for the strike on social media Thursday afternoon, many of her followers reacted approvingly.

“Malky is worth this,” one of her followers commented on the call for a strike. “Every agunah before her is worth this. Every prevented agunah is worth this.”

In response to a negative comment, another woman wrote, “It’s not punishing women. ” She added, “A properly executed sex strike would def get some of the men in power to think twice.”

But critics of the strike — including those who agree that the problem of get refusal needs to be addressed — say it could interfere with “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home, an oft-cited Jewish value, and could disrupt otherwise healthy relationships.

“The way to address broken relationships is *not* by creating more broken relationships,” Rabbi David Bashevkin, creator of popular Orthodox podcast 18Forty shared on X on Monday. “Using intimacy as a point of leverage for social protest is unwise and downright dangerous. More healthy families. More healthy relationships.”

He added, “This is a communal issue that needs communal coordination and buy-in.”

Even some Orthodox feminists who have lobbied on behalf of agunot say they are troubled by the strike. Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told JTA she often speaks out against the “weaponization of halacha” and sees the mikvah strike to be another example of it.

“Religion-based coercive control is morally wrong and should never be tolerated,” she wrote in an email to JTA. “It shouldn’t take the threat of women to withhold sex from their husbands in order to get men’s attention – nor to get men to behave as allies toward women, and toward the halachic system that they purport to hold so dear. Using sex as a form of coercion is also highly problematic.”

She suggested, though, that the strike could create an opportunity for Jewish legal authorities to remember the other tactics they have at their disposal to pressure men who refuse to divorce their wives — in particular, “banning entry of recalcitrant husbands into every Jewish religious and communal institution and business, as well as private homes, until he issues a get.”

Sash attributes negative reaction to the strike as part of a “misogynistic” double standard for withholding a get versus withholding sex.

“If they’re going to withhold the get, then we’re going to withhold sex,” Sash said.

“They say, ‘How could you withhold sex? You’re weaponizing your body! How can you withhold sex? You’re weaponizing intimacy,’” she added. “Then how could you withhold the get? You’re weaponizing the divorce process. You are holding a woman in limbo.”

One last thing: Could we get a little more background on Malky?

Malky and Volvy Berkowitz married in 2016. At their wedding, Malky wore a dek tichel, or opaque bridal veil, which she described in a text shared with JTA as a “blindfold.”

“Besides Volvy giving me a kdishen [sic] ring and getting me pregnant twice we never connected,” she wrote. “Good bye Volvy I never knew you and I’ll never know you.”

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