On June 24, I attended the Agunah Summit in New York sponsored by the New York
University Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Orthodox
Feminist Alliance (JOFA).
Over 200 participants from Israel, the US and
Canada, including Orthodox rabbis, judges, lawyers, scholars and women’s rights
activists met to discuss solutions to the problem of agunot, women chained to an
unwanted or non-existent Jewish marriage because their husbands refuse to give
them a get (Jewish divorce). As an Israeli women’s rights lawyer who has
represented hundreds of agunot in the Israeli rabbinical courts during the past
33 years, I was impressed by the presentations and particularly encouraged by
the call for community action.
Summit organizers expressed the hope that
new scholarship as to halachic solutions and new political changes might bring
about real change. High-profile speakers included Justice Minister Tzipi Livni,
recently retired Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch and the prolific and
well-known Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
Recently elected MK Dr.
Aliza Lavie, chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, was unable
to attend but sent a letter to all participants stating, “We must keep the
agunot situation high on our agenda, it is the duty of us all, men and women, to
cooperate in order to bring about a change. I believe that the time is now ripe,
and that we have a special and unique window of opportunity for action through
While there have been many conferences, workshops and
meetings organized by women’s organizations during the past three decades, this
is the first time a conference on the subject of agunot was sponsored by a
prestigious secular academic institution. The participation of high-level
political and judiciary figures was also a first.
Tzipi Livni promised to
use her ministry to attain equality for women and to eliminate discrimination
against women in the Jewish divorce process. Dorit Beinisch declared that women
have the right to equality and the right to family life. She noted while
rabbinical court decisions are subject to judicial review, the Supreme Court has
been reluctant to intervene on substantive issues of halacha. Stating that the
court cannot race ahead of social consensus, Beinisch recognized the urgency of
a need to find a solution to the problem of agunot and declared that the court
might be compelled to intervene more actively in these cases in the
Despite over 30 years of efforts by veteran agunah advocates like
myself, a recent study in Israel shows that a high percentage of Jewish women
seeking a divorce are threatened by their husbands that such a petition will be
met by get refusal.
As in past conferences, scholars reminded us of the
halachic solutions to the problem of get refusal including annulment, civil
sanctions such as imprisonment and prenuptial agreements. Some interesting new
tactics were proposed, including the development of a “get insurance plan” which
would be sold by insurance companies to brides. Another suggestion, made by
well-known Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, was that legislation be
introduced which would disbar lawyers who represent recalcitrant husbands who
demand exorbitant financial rewards for their consent to the giving of a
But the real problem with this summit, as in all other past
conferences, was the absence of those who have the power to solve the issue of
agunot. The chief rabbis, the dayanim and the haredi spiritual leaders who
decide the cases had been invited, but didn’t attend. Eight years ago, while
serving as the only woman on the Israeli Commission to Appoint Dayanim, I worked
closely with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and suggested that he convene an
international conference of leading Orthodox rabbis and dayanim to discuss the
problem of agunot, and halachic solutions.
Amar agreed to my proposal and
appointed Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, then director of the rabbinical courts and now
the deputy minister of religious services, to work with me on preparing a list
of rabbis to be invited and organizing the program for the October 2006
conference. However, there was opposition coming from haredi leaders and just
four days before the conference, under extreme pressure from the “Gadol Hador,”
Rav Elyashiv, Amar cancelled the conference. There was an outpouring of rage
from many of the invited rabbis as well as Jewish women worldwide.
New York summit came to an end, a panel of four Orthodox rabbis from Israel and
the US discussed “The Role of the Rabbi.” When one explained that halachic
changes are made slowly, and that we must be patient, he seemed a bit surprised
by the loud and angry response from the audience.
However, it was Rabbi
Asher Lopatin, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, the new head of Chovevei Torah Yeshiva
in New York, who received cheers from the crowd as he proposed an alternative
international Beit Din which would apply halachic solutions and free agunot. He
reminded us of the Beit Din established about two decades ago by the late Rabbi
Professor Emanuel Rackman, which was plagued by the fact that Orthodox rabbis
refused to recognize its decisions and therefore the women were unable to
Lopatin suggested that the time had come to support an
alternative international Beit Din and declared that he is willing and able to
sign up 100 rabbis who will accept the new Beit Din’s decisions.
organizers expressed their delight with Lopatin’s proposal and the positive
response from the participants. Blu Greenberg noted that rabbis make halachic
decisions based on community sentiment and pressure and that communal enactments
(takanot hakahal) have been part of the development of Jewish law for centuries.
When rabbis were unwilling or unable to solve problems, the community would
impose a solution through such an enactment. Greenberg stated that a call should
go out to the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream organization of
Orthodox Jewry in the US, declaring “We’ve run out of time! We are mortally
ashamed of each case of agunot!” This call to action should take place in Israel
Upon the election of the new chief rabbis in July, we must mount
our campaign to support rabbinical courts that apply halachic solutions, whether
they are part of the government operated rabbinical courts or private
international or local courts. Surely we can find at least 100 rabbis to support
the international court or an Israeli version.
We, the community, have
the power to act and demand solutions to the problem of agunot now. The ball is
in our court! The author is a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer and director
of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council
of Jewish Women. She served as the only woman on the Commission to Appoint
Dayanim from 2003-2009.