This year, as I joined millions of my people in celebrating the festival of freedom, I could not help but think of the thousands of Jewish women who may not be slaves in Egypt, but are nevertheless not free.
These women, known as “agunot” or “mesuravot get”, are not free to enjoy loving companionship, remarry or have children. They are not enslaved by Pharaoh, but by their greedy, vindictive husbands, who refuse to free them from unwanted or non-existent marriages.
Trapped by Jewish law, which requires the consent of the husband in order to obtain a “get” (a religious divorce), each one of these thousands of women suffers along with her children. As an Israeli lawyer, I have represented hundreds of these women in the rabbinical courts for almost four decades. Sadly, I have witnessed their pain and anguish.
Lecturing over the years to Jewish communities in 30 countries, I have heard the tragic stories of Jewish women worldwide.
Why are these women unable to celebrate their freedom? Why have our distinguished, learned rabbis been unable to solve this problem and free these women? I’ve been asking these questions for almost 40 years and have received a variety of answers.
“Halacha binds our hands,” replied a well-known dayan (religious court judge) several decades ago. A caring, compassionate, learned man descended from a long line of distinguished rabbis, he told me that his efforts to free agunot were limited by Jewish law.
“Be creative,” I replied.
Throughout Jewish history, we have had many creative rabbis who have found solutions to the problem of agunot. Why can’t you use those solutions now?
“We need consensus,” stated another distinguished rabbi. “So long as there is controversy among leading rabbis regarding these creative solutions, we cannot apply them.”
“Be courageous,” I responded. Jewish leaders, religious and secular, have been courageous throughout our history and we are so proud of their actions.
“Ah,” replied a distinguished rosh yeshiva, known for his courage and creativity, “I am willing to be courageous, but I am not willing to commit suicide!” “Be patient!” they all say. “We must move carefully and slowly in resolving this problem.”
Well, we have been patient for many decades, but so far we don’t see much progress. Now, young, educated and thoughtful women have decided to solve the problem themselves.
Appalled by the horror stories of Jewish women trapped by their husbands and Jewish law, and disappointed by the inability or unwillingness of rabbis to find a solution, they have decided to act. Increasingly, these women are changing the wedding ceremony. They are doing away with “kiddushin,” the process by which a Jewish husband “acquires” his wife and “owns” her.
I recently attended the beautiful traditional Orthodox wedding of two highly educated young people. It was a joyous occasion for all of those in attendance as we joined the happy family and the loving couple. However, when the handsome groom put a ring on her finger and said “at mekudeshet li” to his beautiful bride, I felt a pang of sadness. With those words and the ring, he acquired her and she became his “property.”
Should their marriage break down for any reason, she will not be able to remarry unless and until he consents to give her a get. Should he become mentally incompetent or comatose, she will be unable to remarry so long as he is alive.
I have every reason to believe that this lovely couple will have a long and happy marriage, but the reality is that one of every three marriages will end in divorce. Modern marriage is not easy, and too often couples find that they cannot continue their marital relationship.
When there is marital breakdown, Jewish women find that they carry a special burden. They need their husband’s consent in order to divorce and remarry. We’re all familiar with the terrible stories of men who refuse to consent, holding their wives hostage as they bargain for exorbitant amounts of money in exchange for their agreement to the divorce.
While pre-nuptial agreements can be helpful in preventing this problem, they do not solve every case and many couples do not wish to sign them.
Unwilling to be caught in this trap, an increasing number of Jewish women and their partners worldwide are changing the wedding ceremony by doing away with “kiddushin.”
It’s quite simple, actually. A distinguished professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University published an academic article on solutions to the problem of agunot several decades ago in which he suggested that one word in the Jewish wedding ceremony be changed. Instead of saying “at mekudesht li,” (you are consecrated to me), the groom says “at meyuchedet li.” This means that she is “special” to him, and is not “owned” by him.
The couples claim that they are getting married “in the manner of kiddushin” without actually invoking kiddushin as to acquisition. By doing away with kiddushin, the ceremony is traditional and beautiful, but not binding. In other words, this is not a Jewish marriage based on acquisition. Therefore, should the marital relationship break down in the future, the wife will not need a get and will be free to remarry and have children.
She will be able to sit with us at the seder table as a free woman and celebrate the festival of freedom like all other Jews worldwide.
The author, a Jerusalem-based attorney, is director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council of Jewish Women. She served as the only woman on the Israeli Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2003-2009.