Over the past several decades, some progress has been made to relieve the plight of agunot, literally “chained women” whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, a religious writ of divorce. Yet the progress has been too little and too late for many who find themselves in this intolerable situation.
The Second Agunah Summit – organized by Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law, the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) – aims to address the institutional aspect of the problem of agunot and more specifically the responsibility of the state toward these “chained” women.
The conference, set to take place on Monday at Bar-Ilan University, will bring together representatives from aguna activist organizations, rabbis, members of Knesset, academics, and scholars for a day of discussions exploring the current situation in Israel, where religious marriage and divorce is the only official track recognized by law.
Blu Greenberg, founder of JOFA and one of the organizers of the summit, has worked on the aguna issue for over three decades.
“Like many others who have tried to help agunot, I feel as though I have moved along the wrong path for so many years,” Greenberg told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“The solutions have been partial and not comprehensive. Fines, civil court solutions, shaming, and community sanctions have not ended the problem. I realized that while I am celebrating these small gains there is a continual flow of agunot. The problem will not go away until and unless we moved to another path, that of systemic halachic solutions that could address the breakdown in the system,” she said.
Greenberg explained that while progress has been achieved in the form of prenuptial and tripartite agreements, which aim to protect a woman’s right to a divorce, these solutions cannot be considered comprehensive for another 50 years, even if they were to become mandatory today.
Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and former dean of the Bar-Ilan Law Faculty, told the Post on Sunday that the conference will ask a very specific question: “What is the responsibility of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state regarding this issue?” The issue of agunot remains under the authority of the rabbinical courts, a legal system which gives Orthodox rabbis a monopoly on administering the marriage and divorce laws for Jews in Israel. Nevertheless, the professor insists there are a number of solutions being debated today that the state can readily implement to alleviate this problem.
One option, according to Stern, is for the state to appoint more liberal rabbis, within the framework of Halacha, as religious court judges.
In addition, Stern said the state could push for the implementation of prenuptial agreements, which moderate a husband’s right to deny a get. Even though prenuptial agreements of this sort have been available for nearly a decade, most couples are unaware of this option. Stern argues that the Chief Rabbinate should divulge this option to all couples intending to marry.
A third option is for the state to advance tort laws that impose significant fines on husbands who refuse to grant their wives a divorce. While individual rabbis and rabbinical courts have used this practice, Stern said the state could push this issue in a more “serious and convincing” systemic manner.
An additional option, and one that the IDI and Stern have consistently advocated, is the brit hazugiot, or civil spousal covenant, offering a parallel option to Halachic nuptials.
According to the professor, this option would grant “full protection and human rights” to those who decide not to or who cannot marry under Jewish religious law. Unfortunately, explained Stern, this would only partially resolve the problem, as roughly 65-70 percent of couples in Israel prefer to marry in a traditional Jewish ceremony officiated by an Orthodox rabbi.
The final approach and the one that Greenberg has advocated, calls for the establishment of “an International Beit Din that would take a look at a full halachic range of possibilities,” she said.
According to Greenberg, such a religious court should operate according to “totally transparent halachic methodologies” to rescue agunot.
The state has an important role to play in legitimizing the full range of halachic solutions to the problem, Greenberg explained. This is a unique moment in Jewish history – the existence of a democratic Jewish state that respects and honors Jewish tradition and law is vital to the resolution of agunot.
In contrast, Stern said he does not believe that such an approach should be adopted and said he would rather change the existing system and push the Chief Rabbinate to interpret Halacha in a way that “honors basic human rights.”
Today, a committee of some 150 people, comprised mostly of Orthodox rabbis, as well as political and local authority figures, appoints the Chief rabbinate.
Instead, Stern proposed a democratization of the vote, so that the leading, influential religious figures in Israel will be appointed by the people.
These suggestions and many more aim to be addressed, discussed, and debated at this year’s conference in an effort to improve the plight of agunot.
Even after decades of struggling with this issue, as well as other problematic issues plaguing Jewish life, both Greenberg and Stern remain optimistic.
“The Knesset and the public are ripe,” said Stern. “They have had enough with this problem and everybody understands now that there is a problem.”