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In a development emphasizing the tension between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, on Sunday cancelled his appearance at a conference on solutions to the problem of agunot, organized by the Schechter Institute.
"Being singled out as the only Orthodox rabbi to speak at the conference would risk having my suggested solutions to the agunot problem disqualified by the rabbinic establishment," said Riskin.
Agunot, literally "chained," are women that have separated from their husbands but cannot remarry according to Jewish law because their recalcitrant husbands refuse to grant a writ of divorce known as a get.
"I feel so strongly about the aguna cause that I would speak anywhere. And I often speak at the Shechter Institute or at other Conservative venues. "But on the issue of halachic solutions to agunot I am afraid that appearing in a Conservative context would be counterproductive.
"I am lobbying for solutions to the agunot problem that are within the boundaries of Orthodox Halacha," explained Riskin, "while the Conservative Movement has positioned itself outside Halacha."
Riskin recently published A Jewish Woman's Right to Divorce: A Halakhic History and a Solution for the Agunah, in which he argues for prenuptial agreements and suggests using retroactive annulment of marriages hafka'at nisu'in in special cases.
Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute, said in response to Riskin's cancellation that, while he had great respect for Riskin's work both in Israel and in the Diaspora, Riskin's decision was "unfortunate." "Just yesterday morning the rabbi's secretary said he would be coming," said Golinkin.
Golinkin said that the Van Leer Institute was purposely chosen to serve as a neutral location so that Orthodox rabbis could participate. Schechter also advertised in the media mentioning Riskin as a participant.
"Some rabbis, and I don't mean Rabbi Riskin, are more afraid of the haredim than of making certain to serve God and the Jewish people," Golinkin said, adding that two senior rabbis who serve as rabbinic judges turned down an invitation to the conference.
The Jerusalem Post learned that one of them was Chief Rabbi of Haifa She'ar Hayishuv Hacohen.
The conference was organized to promote a new book, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and its Center for Women in Jewish Law entitled Zaakat Dalot (The Cry of the Wretched): Halakhic Solutions for the Agunot of Our Time.
The book was written by Rabbis Monique Susskind Goldberg and Diana Villa and edited by Golinkin, Professor Moshe Benowitz, and Rabbi Richard Lewis.
The book presents a variety of possible solutions, based on traditional halachic sources but not necessarily based on traditional Orthodox methodology, to a situation in which an uncooperative husband or wife interminably delays a divorce by using the get as a bargaining chip to force the other side to compromise on alimony payments, child custody or mutually owned assets.
The book puts forward nine solutions to the agunot problem. Some are applicable before marriage such as prenuptial agreements, conditional marriage or living in an arrangement in which the woman is a concubine (pilegesh).
Other solutions, that can be implemented even after the marital bond is consummated, include coercing the husband or wife to divorce or annulling the wedding retroactively.