A day for agunot

For well over a decade now Jewish women’s rights organizations have marked the Fast of Esther, which proceeds Purim and falls this year on Wednesday, as International Agunah Day.

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February 26, 2018 20:44
3 minute read.
THE AUTHOR has created tales of religious and personal conflict in the 15th century and today.

THE AUTHOR has created tales of religious and personal conflict in the 15th century and today.. (photo credit: GIL COHEN MAGEN)

 
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For well over a decade now Jewish women’s rights organizations have marked the Fast of Esther, which proceeds Purim and falls this year on Wednesday, as International Agunah Day.

Just as the biblical Esther was trapped in a marriage she did not want, so too are hundreds of Jewish women forced to remain “chained” [in Hebrew, “agunot”] to their husbands because Jewish law as interpreted by a group of hardline rabbis offers no solutions.

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Unfortunately, little progress has been made to relieve the plight of agunot in Israel. In a wide range of areas, rabbinic courts in Israel – which have a monopoly over all marriages and divorces performed in Israel and also adjudicate on Israeli divorce proceedings for civil marriages conducted outside Israel – have refused to take advantage of innovations that can be found inside the framework of Halacha, Jewish law.

Generally speaking, the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbinic courts do not recognize prenuptial agreements that make it easier to sanction recalcitrant husbands and settle financial disputes.

Chief Rabbinate judges also do not recognize “dead” marriages, in which it is clear beyond a doubt that there is no chance for reconciliation. These judges insist on finding a guilty party even when there is none. And they refuse to obligate the man to grant his wife a writ of divorce (“get”) in these situations. Ostensibly, these judges are trying to protect the family institution. But in reality they are only prolonging the suffering of women who want to proceed with their lives with another man and have no use for the input of traditional-minded men who have not grasped that a woman in the 21st century is entitled to full autonomy.

Even the many Jewish couples that could marry under the auspices of the rabbinate, but opt to go abroad to marry in civil ceremonies, often fall under the purview of the rabbis if they want to divorce in Israel. Though there are opinions in Halacha that do not require couples married in a civil ceremony to end the marriage with a Jewish divorce, the Chief Rabbinate has adopted a strict interpretation. As a result, children born to a woman after she left a civil marriage without a Jewish divorce and remarried will be placed on a “blacklist” and face difficulties marrying in Israel.

No less worrying is the push by the Chief Rabbinate’s judges to expand their jurisdiction to additional fields such as arbitration and the financial aspects of divorce settlements. In the present government coalition, the Chief Rabbinate has strong backing not only from Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties, but also from Bayit Yehudi MKs such as Nissan Slomiansky, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.



Veteran activists who have been fighting for the rights of agunot for years, such Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, say there is little hope for reform. A hardline rabbinic establishment allied with a formidable political representation in the government will never willingly give up its monopoly over marriages and divorces, as well as other religious services such as kosher supervision, the appointment of rabbis and judges who receive salaries from the State of Israel and control the state budget for the building of synagogues, mikvaot and the upkeep of historic sites such as the Western Wall Plaza.

The only hope for change is by presenting an alternative to the rabbinate in the fields of kosher supervision, marriages and divorces and other religious services. And this is already happening.

A trend started by a group of rabbis calling themselves Hashgacha Pratit, who bypass the Chief Rabbinate and offer their own kosher supervision, has now spread. Tzohar, a large rabbinic organization, announced this week that it too will offer kosher supervision services.

A number of rabbis have also begun conducting private marriage ceremonies outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. By doing so, these rabbis brave a maximum prison sentence of two years as well as sanctions from the Chief Rabbinate.

There are also dozens of private rabbinic courts that conduct divorces in accordance with Halacha, but which work outside the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate has proved that it is more interested in power and maintaining its monopoly than finding solutions to the plight of women stuck in marriages in which they do not want to be. On Agunah Day we should remember these women and pray for the day when the Rabbinate’s stranglehold on Jewish innovation comes to an end.

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