The bonds — and shackles — of Jewish marriage

A high-powered summit in New York City this week examines the aguna plight, and comes up with more anger than answers

The problem of 'agunot,' or chained women, is international (illustrative photo: Serge Attal/Flash 90)
The problem of 'agunot,' or chained women, is international (illustrative photo: Serge Attal/Flash 90)

NEW YORK — If you’re bound to a dead marriage, help is on its way — but it may take decades to arrive.

On June 24, a high-profile summit of Jewish leaders gathered in New York to discuss solutions for the ongoing crisis of nashim agunot, or “anchored women” who are unable to gain a religious divorce.

Hosted by the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization at NYU and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) at the NYU School of Law, the summit convened rabbis, legal scholars, policy makers and activists from both the US and Israel, including, most notably, Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, former Israeli Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch, and Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University.

“Let’s not mince words — an aguna is a slave,” said Dershowitz. “Her plight is the responsibility not only of every Jew in the world, but of every human being that cares about equality and dignity.”

‘Let’s not mince words — an Aguna is a slave’

“Aguna” is the Hebrew term for a woman who is neither effectively married nor legally divorced. In order to dissolve a Jewish marriage, a husband must voluntarily give his wife a get — a writ of divorce. If he is unable or unwilling to do so, she is essentially stuck. Although she could leave, she may not remarry: such a marriage would be considered null by the rabbinical establishment, and the children born from it, as well as their progeny, would be deemed mamzerim — “bastards.” Mamzerim are restricted from marrying into any segment of the Jewish community, except to other mamzerim.

In the Diaspora, an aguna can either sacrifice her children’s marital prospects or marry outside of Judaism. In Israel, where Jewish and state laws are essentially one, she cannot remarry at all.

According to Israel’s chief rabbinate, the number of agunot in Israel borders on 200 a year (no data was presented for the US). But this does not come close to representing the true number of get refusal and get extortion victims, said Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, former vice president of the UN’s CEDAW (Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women).

According to a recent survey of a representative sample of 320 divorced women in Israel, one out of every three Orthodox women was threatened by her ex-husband with a get refusal.

‘It’s the duty of the state — of any state — to protect the women from get extortion and get abuse. It’s time that the state recognizes this as a grave human rights violation, and issues alternatives’

“It’s the duty of the state — of any state — to protect the women from get extortion and get abuse,” said Kaddari. “It’s time that the state recognizes this as a grave human rights violation, and issues alternatives to the religious system.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds, though, Israeli policy makers pointed out. Like many other human rights issues in the country, the aguna problem stems from Israel’s constitutional obligation to maintain both religious and democratic values.

“The political reality is that even now, when the ultra-Orthodox are not in the coalition, they still have the right of veto,” said Livni. “We tried — we tried to add women to the forum that votes for future rabbis in Israel, and we got vetoed. We put on the table an offer for a different way for those who cannot get married by the halacha [the collective body of Jewish religious laws] — there’s 100,000 of them in Israel — and we got another veto.”

“When it comes to finding a solution that can be implemented soon, I’m worried. I don’t know if we have one,” said Beinisch. Though the court acknowledges that “it’s a serious problem… that some rabbinical authorities leave women without the ability to end their own marriages,” there’s very little the court can do about it. “The rabbinical courts are state authorities, and as such, are indeed subject to review; but they overextend their authority, and cannot be forced to implement the court’s orders. Often, they will not.”

The rabbinical courts also claim that their hands are tied. They are bound to halacha, and according to the halacha, a get must be given by the husband, of his own free will, with no coercion or pressure, or the divorce is invalid.

Halacha does provide certain loopholes

But halacha does provide certain loopholes, and they could be used to release an aguna — as a score of rabbis participating in the summit pointed out.

“There is a principle in the Talmud that gives rabbis the authority to retroactively annul a marriage… There are also mechanisms through which a community” can do the same, explained Professor Moshe Halbertal, co-director of NYU’s Tikvah Center. “Also, like other contractual transactions, if it can be proven that a marriage was based on misinformation, the marriage can be ruled invalid.”

Talmudic loopholes of this kind were sanctioned and used in the past by a variety of halachic authorities to save women from bad marriages. The rabbinical courts could use them today to release the agunot, claimed the rabbis — but they do not. They would rather not risk the possibility that a divorce be halachically faulty, said Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of Efrat.

‘They are rabbanim that are so wedded to their books that they don’t see people anymore. This is a stain on all of us’

“It’s been said that where there is a rabbinic will, they will find the halachic way,” Riskin continued. “Tragically, these are rabbis that won’t, and though there is a clear halachic way, they refuse to use it… They are rabbanim that are so wedded to their books that they don’t see people anymore. This is a stain on all of us,” he added, enraged.

“If halachic Judaism, or rather the people that administer it, fails to deal with this challenge, it will create difficulties beyond the victims of aguna,”’ stated Dershowitz. “It will cause people to refuse Jewish marriages and gets. It will cause people to leave Judaism altogether… and most importantly, it will cause halachic Judaism to fail its own test of morality.”

Many solutions were suggested throughout the summit, both halachic and systemic. Some suggested creating a new rabbinical court dedicated to agunot, one that would dare to implement the existing halachic solutions. Others proposed promoting legislation to penalize get refusers. Further ideas included suing get refusers for compensation, denouncing them communally, and encouraging couples to sign a Jewish prenup with a get clause.

Though effective in the long term, perhaps, these measures were far from the “comprehensive and immediate” changes many activists were calling for. Rabbi Ronen Neuwritz of the Ohel Ari congregation in Ra’anana said that it will take years for such ideas to be accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy, and warned that “[if] we try to push the envelope on this, the majority will reject it.” He was practically booed off the stage.

“We’ve already been waiting for years!” cried one woman. “Tell me when can I get my life back!” called another.

“One thing is clear: The solution will not come from the rabbinate in Israel, and apparently, with the exception of a few, not from here either,” said Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice.

But JOFA’s founder, Blu Greenberg, who has witnessed many tides change, seemed content. “We changed the mindset that ‘nothing can be changed,’ because it’s ‘halachic,’” she smiled. “That’s something.”

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