Why you should care
Hundreds of Orthodox Jewish women are denied religious divorce by their husbands, who hold them hostage in a relationship limbo that threatens their future.
Breakups, separations, divorce – these are all tough enough on their own. Add in a spouse who refuses to let you go and a risk to your future children’s spirituality and marriage prospects, and you’ve got the plight of the agunot.
An agunah is a Hebrew word, literally translated to mean “chained wife.” Agunot are women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, a divorce document required by Jewish Law, which ritually terminates the Jewish marriage and allows a couple to remarry. It must be presented to a wife by the husband. And amongst Orthodox Jews, husbands are increasingly withholding get in marriages that are clearly over, sometimes as a means of extortion.
Many Orthodox rabbis consider the plight of the agunot as one of the most serious problems facing Jewish law today.
A woman who has been refused a get will not be allowed to remarry, and if she does enter into a new relationship and has children, she is considered an adulterer and her children mamzers, commonly understood as illegitimate. Mamzers carry this stigma for life, and all of their descendants carry it as well. Under traditional Jewish law, mamzers would only be able to marry people of their status and this would basically eliminate their chance at marrying within the Orthodox faith, or continuing their family’s religion.
Many Orthodox rabbis consider the plight of the agunot as one of the most serious problems facing Jewish law today. A 2011 study found 462 North American cases of agunah in a five year period. The survey reported an increase in cases of Jewish women being refused get with a decrease in case resolution.
”It leaves the woman in religious limbo, unable to remarry and have a child,” says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the nonprofit Organization for the Resolution of the Agunot (ORA). “The stakes here are huge. Really, really huge.” He says ORA has about 50 agunah cases they advise on at any given time.
Why do husbands refuse the get? Because they can. It is commonly used as a way to negotiate other non-religious divorce points like custody or splitting finances. A husband could ask a wife for more time with a child than a civil court would traditionally give, or ask for large sums of money. Other times, it can just be about spite or an attempt to maintain control. Some husbands refuse get for years, leaving the woman stuck in the marriage and making it unacceptable for her to date within the Orthodox community. Traditionally, husbands who refused get, while the marriage was clearly broken, were shunned from their community until they gave the get. Today, actual ex-communication is rare.
Stern says isolating the get from all other contentious issues of a divorce is key to making sure get is given. “You can’t mediate an issue with a gun to your head or a get over your head.”
But this problem could be on the brink of solutions because of a combination of three things: a new rabbinical court, a growth in the cultural shame of being a get refuser, and a wider acceptance of Jewish prenuptial agreements. While these are all in their infancy, they are buds of optimism in Jewish law.
Long-awaited by Orthodox Jewish feminists, this independent rabbinical court will specialize in looking for systemic solutions…
This year, a new rabbinical court in New York City, led by the well-respected Rabbi Simcha Krauss is starting. Up until now, American Jewish couples settled religious legal matters at smaller rabbinical courts, some of which can be subject to corruption and bribery. Long-awaited by Orthodox Jewish feminists, this independent rabbinical court will specialize in looking for systemic solutions – within the confines of Jewish law and scripture – for women seeking get. Including, establishing something similar to that of an annulment.
“I am not a revolutionary, and I understand that halakha [Jewish law] moves slowly,” said Krauss, “but it’s been too slow. It’s time.”
In order for this court to succeed, Orthodox communities must respect the decisions handed down by the court and see any annulments as legitimate. A big problem is enforceability. That’s why this court is focusing on using established rabbinical judges in Orthodox Judaism. Religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, who is working on a book about the agunot, says it’s just a question of when the Orthodox community feels there’s a critical mass who see the court as an authority. “Everyone’s afraid of the far right,” he says.
If there are enough ultra-Orthodox saying the court is not valid, the women who get their gitten from this court are still married and will have mamzers. “At the end of the day that’s what is holding everything up.”
Still, the new special rabbinical court might also have a leg up from attitudes in the modern Orthodox community slowly shifting toward men who refuse get. Stern says he wants people to “see get refusal as a form of domestic abuse.” He adds, “Domestic abuse is defined not by black and blue marks, but as a pattern of controlling behavior.”
Domestic abuse is defined not by black and blue marks, but as a pattern of controlling behavior.
Prenuptial agreements might provide another solution.The well-established Beth Din of America encourages women to sign these binding arbitration agreements, which often create financial disincentives for the husband to refuse get. ORA goes to colleges and high schools to educate a new generation of Orthodox women about the prenups, explaining that it might be a red flag if a man refuses to sign it.
It was the last thing I thought he could possibly do to me. It could happen to anybody, you never know.
Naomi, a 30-year-old woman who was an agunah for nine months, says she wishes she had been more aware of the agunot crisis ahead of her marriage. She says her ex-husband had refused get to his first wife for four years, but had explained to Naomi this was because his first wife was withholding the kind of custody he deserved. She didn’t see it as a red flag, married him, and then three months into their marriage, he said he was divorcing her, but then proceeded to withhold get. This time, Naomi says, he didn’t have an excuse because they did not share finances or children, but she feels it was about control. His community however, didn’t ostracize him despite this being his second get refusal. Eventually, with the help of ORA speaking to a rabbi in his community, he began to worry about his reputation — and gave Naomi the get.
”People who are getting married, they never, ever expect to be an agunah,” says Naomi, who is, of all things, a civil divorce attorney. ”It was the last thing I thought he could possibly do to me. It could happen to anybody, you never know.”
Hopefully, though, 2014 will be a step toward unchaining women and Jewish marriage law from the bonds of an archaic loophole.