Don’t turn ‘agunot’ into pawns - opinion

Her extremely complex case was brought before the official, state-authorized beit din of Tel Aviv.

 THE RABBINICAL Court’s Division for Agunot in Jerusalem: All possible leniencies should be employed to help in releasing an ‘aguna.’ (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
THE RABBINICAL Court’s Division for Agunot in Jerusalem: All possible leniencies should be employed to help in releasing an ‘aguna.’
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

When a victim of nearly 20 years of violence and abuse asks the Chief Rabbinate’s beit din (court) to be released from her broken marriage, the last thing that should happen is for her to turn into a pawn in a power play of rabbinic politics. And yet, that is exactly what happened to “L.”

Four years ago, L., whose abusive and violent husband refused to grant her a get – a halachic divorce – for 19 years (even after he became a bigamist, marrying another woman and establishing a new family), turned to Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center, which represents agunot and victims of get-refusal. Her extremely complex case was brought before the official, state-authorized beit din of Tel Aviv.

While previous tribunals of rabbinical judges had not been successful in releasing her, three brave and courageous dayanim (judges) eventually implemented an innovative solution: retroactively voiding the marriage on the basis of the halachic notion of mekach ta’ut (literally, a “misguided transaction” – indicating that her original consent to marriage was given under false pretenses regarding the character of her husband-to-be, and hence was invalid).

It is important to note that the judges’ detailed legal ruling was sealed and confidential; even L. was unaware of the intricate halachic nuances and decisions. All L. knew was that after almost 20 years, she now held in her hands a piece of official paper from judges who were appointed to their posts by the Chief Rabbinate, ruling that she could remarry according to Jewish law and finally build a new life for herself.

If only the case had truly concluded at that point, with a happy ending.

Instead, shortly after the ruling was issued, another group of dayanim orchestrated an effort to force the ruling to be rescinded, which would effectively re-chain L. to the abusive marriage she had been seeking to escape for nearly 20 years. The group published a public letter condemning the three brave judges who had set L. free.

Moreover, despite the fact that the ruling had been sealed, precise details of the decision were leaked to carefully selected ultra-Orthodox media outlets by this group of rabbinical judges – an act that is nothing short of criminal. It should be entirely clear that this carefully orchestrated leak was intended to smear the bravery of the dayanim sitting on L.’s tribunal, dayanim who were guided by Halacha and compassion while resisting any political or communal pressures.

After their public shaming, coupled with backdoor threatening, the unthinkable happened: the original three dayanim felt so pressured that they walked back their original ruling.

The opposition was motivated by the fear that the authority of the dayanim would be compromised should a handful of courageous dayanim have the “sheer halachic audacity” to implement halachic solutions to resolve the suffering of victims of get-refusal. Such a forceful attack on the three was intended to send a very clear warning to other dayanim: Don’t even think of trying this again.

I regret to say that the last thing on their mind seems to have been the woman, who is now once again being held hostage; L., who literally tasted freedom – only to have it brutally snatched from her hands a mere six weeks later.

The Torah enshrines the principle of judicial independence, commanding dayanim “lo taguru mipnei ish” – “not to be intimidated by anyone.” A rabbinical judge must rule entirely independently, immune to any external influence, faithful only to his analysis of the halachic tradition and the case at hand. He is to be guided by integrity, honesty and a commitment to pursue justice – and no other considerations should be allowed to come into play.

What’s more, when it comes to releasing a woman from a marriage to which she is chained, the operative principle is that of leniency. Throughout the generations, the guiding halachic principle has been that all possible leniencies should be employed to help in releasing an aguna.

Furthermore, it is a fundamental principle in halacha that one beit din may not overrule another beit din. This dictate should be upheld all the more so in this case, where the opponents of the ruling were unfamiliar with the details of the case, did not hear the witnesses’ testimony, and did not see the evidence that served as the basis for the decision.

The three dayanim in Tel Aviv were fully within halachic rights to rule on this case as they saw fit. To challenge their conclusion, is simply counter to Jewish law.

What are we to tell L., who now lives in limbo? And what should we tell the countless other women who will come next? Women who deserve to know that the Halacha will protect them.

Are we really expected to inform them that even after a beit din determines they can be halachically released from their broken and pain-filled marriages, agendas might lead to that ruling being revoked?!

Of even greatest concern, loss of trust in dayanim and their rulings threatens to continue to undermine trust in the beit din system entirely. Of what worth is any rabbinic ruling, founded upon decades of study and analysis, if it can all be overturned in the blink of an eye by those with an agenda who badmouth and threaten courageous dayanim? 

Perhaps the plight of L. is the wakeup call we need to restore public trust in our religious authorities by demanding they separate their halachic guidance from political or communal influences. Let us not squander the opportunity. Until then, Yad La’isha will not rest.

The writer, a rabbi, is the president and rosh ha’yeshiva of the international Ohr Torah Stone network, which counts the Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center for Agunot among its 30 programs and institutions.