Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar caved in to pressure from haredi rabbis in Israel at the last minute and Thursday afternoon cancelled what was to be a ground-breaking conference on the issue of agunot, women who cannot remarry because they have been unable to obtain a divorce from their husbands.
Less than a week before the conference, Amar ordered Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinate's court system, to send out e-mails to dozens of leading rabbis notifying them of the cancellation.
"We might have something small for Diaspora rabbis who have already arrived in Israel," said Ben-Dahan, "but the main conference was cancelled."
"I am disgusted and disappointed with Rabbi Amar," said Sharon Shenhav of the International Council of Jewish Women, an umbrella organization with members in 47 countries, who worked closely with Amar over the past two years to plan the conference, which was to take place in Jerusalem on November 7 and 8.
"We had agreed from the very beginning that women would not be present at the conference," said Shenhav. "The historic importance of the conference, which would have been the first of its kind, meant that we were willing to cooperate."
Shenhav, who said she knew that Amar was under pressure to cancel and had admired his bravery, said that in preparation for the conference women met with rabbis to bring their attention to the problems.
Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and author of A Jewish Woman's Right to Divorce, called Amar's decision a tragedy.
"It is tragic that the conference has been cancelled and it is doubly tragic that pressure outside the chief rabbinate caused the cancellation," said Riskin.
"My most profound fear is that Israeli society will refuse to put up with the attitude of many religious judges who do not decide according to Talmudic law but rather according to the strictest interpretations. These rabbis refuse to obligate the husband to divorce when they should.
"As a result, civil divorce will become a part of Israeli society to the detriment of the sanctity of the Jewish people."
Sources close to Amar said the demand to cancel came from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the most important living haredi Ashkenazi halachic authority.
Elyashiv and haredi rabbis and judges close to him oppose Amar's push to institute prenuptial agreements that would make it easier to free agunot, said the sources. For halachic reasons Elyashiv opposes the use of such agreements, arguing that it is a type of coercion which makes the get or divorce certificate, invalid.
However, one source said that Amar had specifically received permission from Elyashiv to go ahead with the conference when planning first began two years ago. "I don't know what happened all of a sudden," said the source.
A source close to Elyashiv said that the rabbi never opposed the conference. "He said, 'I don't have opinion either way, neither for or against," said the source.
Agunot - literally chained women - are prevented by Jewish law from remarrying since they cannot obtain a Jewish divorce. For decades there has been a battle within Orthodoxy over how to solve the problem.
More liberal elements have claimed that the rabbinic establishment is riddled with chauvinism, close-mindedness and fear of change which has prevented creative solutions.
In contrast, the rabbinic establishment has accused their critics of abandoning the Orthodox path.
The conference was considered a major breakthrough in relations between the more moderate elements on both sides that could lead to a consensus that would be acceptable to all of Orthodoxy.
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