All the books of the prophets and all the holy writings will be nullified in the messianic era, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the Five Books of the Torah and the halachot of the oral law, which will never be nullified.” (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah, 2:18)
This week, we mark International Aguna Day, traditionally held on Ta’anit Esther, the fast on Purim eve. (An aguna is a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage.)
As we know, Purim’s Megillat (scroll of) Esther contains no mention of God. Mordechai and Esther’s heroic activity was not caused by a divine sighting, and the salvation of the Jewish people was not the result of overt miracles. Rather, it was predicated on the Torah values rooted in their hearts and souls.
Their internal values drove their activities, bringing unity and redemption for the Jewish people. This is why, despite the lack of God’s overt presence in the book, Maimonides nevertheless maintained that Megillat Esther has eternal status in the same category as the Five Books of Moses as the eternal message of God because of the importance of its central message that contemporary challenges can be solved through human initiative.
We, the modern-day Mordechais and Esthers, have a similar opportunity. There is much we can do to hasten the Messianic age by repairing with our ingenuity and halachic (Jewish legal) creativity the moral scourges of religious life. One example of such an opportunity is highlighted by International Aguna Day.
The Torah created a tool to protect Jewish couples from unhappy, abusive marriages: the get (divorce document). Indeed, the get is the first such concept in human history; a medium by which a woman could separate from a disintegrating family structure and remain economically protected.
However, to our great distress, this tool of protection has been weaponized against scorned spouses. Thousands of Jewish women around the world are being held hostage by husbands who refuse to give their spouses the get they need and deserve. Not only does this spiritual plague create misery for the aguna, it also devastates children and extended families, and casts darkness over the ideals of Torah. If the guiding principles of our sacred Torah include, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” then it is inconceivable that such pain should be inflicted under the guise of halachic protocols.
As Jews, our mandate is not curse the darkness, but rather to add more light. We must work proactively to marshal the resources we currently have at our disposal, even as we search for new solutions.
On a personal and communal level, we must ease the aguna’s personal plight with all deliberate speed and in a holistic manner. This can done by providing economic and psychological support, as well as advocating for the aguna in the rabbinic court system, as well as providing the aguna with critically needed legal and often investigative services.
WE MUST speak out against any get-refusal; encourage the rabbinical court judges to implement their legal sanctions more expeditiously and recognize them when they do; publicly shame recalcitrant husbands whose names have been published by the religious courts; and bar these husbands from receiving aliyot, community honors, and the like. Such policies should be written into the bylaws of every synagogue.
However, these items are much like putting a bandage on a wound. We want to root out the source of the infection, and as such, we must not rest until we find other proactive solutions.
In North America, the Modern-Orthodox community has been using a prenuptial agreement administered by the Bet Din of America, developed by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, and approved by an international set of poskim (legal decisors). This document simply indicates that if a spouse refuses to allow the get process to occur, then the financial obligations of sustenance as stated in the ketubah (marriage contract) devolve upon the recalcitrant spouse. For 25 years, tens of thousands of North American couples have used this document, and there has not been a single case of aguna resulting among those couples.
Do we in Israel love our daughters any less than they do theirs?
The time has come to promote the use of the halachic prenuptial agreement in Israel. Just as no one buys car insurance because they know with certainty that an accident will occur, and no one purchases home insurance in the hope that there will be a fire, we must educate our young people, our teachers, our spiritual leaders, and the relevant professionals that signing a halachic prenuptial agreement is no more than taking out a strong insurance policy against an unwanted, but potential future possibility. We must work to shatter negative preconceived notions and superstitions that prevent people who are in love from taking this insurance policy, and explain that it is really a natural extension of the ketubah in intent and implementation.
Finally, we must call upon our rabbis to lead the way in the use of this simple, halachically credible document, and insist that they will only perform weddings in which a halachic pre-nup is used.
Imagine if we, the Israeli rabbinic leadership, mothers and fathers, siblings and friends, raised our voices in unison on this issue. To paraphrase Megillat Esther, chapter 4:14, If we remain silent at this time, our capacity to be agents of change and role models for our children will disappear, and perhaps it is for this reason that we have relationships, so we can make a difference.
If we all band together in a values-driven initiative to overcome this challenge, much like the Jews did in Persia, perhaps next year we will merit to mark International Aguna Day differently.
The writer is president and rosh hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs, including the Monica Dennis Goldberg Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center for Agunot.