Agunot advocates push for prenuptial agreements

Rabbis: Such agreements will make it too easy for one side to end marriage.

agunot bill protest 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
agunot bill protest 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In two separate initiatives, a coalition of Orthodox Jewish women's rights organizations are calling on attorneys, marriage registrars and rabbis to support the institutionalization of prenuptial agreements as a solution to the phenomenon of women denied a divorce (agunot). In Israel, marriage and divorce among Jews is governed by Jewish law. As a result, rabbis and rabbinical judges are responsible, respectively, for tying the knot and having it severed. According to Jewish law, full cooperation of both husband and wife is essential to complete the divorce process. Only in rare cases can one side be coerced to divorce. Until the divorce is completed, which can take years, neither side can remarry. In theory, Jewish law makes it possible for a vindictive husband or wife to refuse to acquiesce to divorce, thus holding the other party captive. Usually, but not always, it is the woman who is held captive by the husband who attempts to use the giving of the writ of divorce (get) as a bargaining chip. Women caught in this limbo-like situation are known as "agunot" - literally, "chained women." However, the chances of making prenuptials a mandatory part of all marriages in Israel might be hurt by the opposition of some rabbinical judges to their use. The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, the Center for Women's Justice and the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York have recently joined forces to publish a pamphlet encouraging the use of prenuptials that target public figures who preside over marriages. Meanwhile, the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel, Matan, Mifnim and Yad L'isha together with the Rackman Center have organized two conferences - one this week, another next week - aimed at teaching marriage professionals the benefits of prenuptial agreements. Leading legal professions such as Dr. Dov Frimer, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kedari of the Rackman Center spoke this week on the benefits of prenuptials and their use by rabbis in the past and present. Next week, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinical courts, will take part in a panel. Ben-Dahan is known to support the use of prenuptials. These organizations are convinced that implementing prenuptial agreements will save one side in an unsuccessful marriage - usually the woman - from the recalcitrant side - usually the man - who refuses to cooperate with the divorce at all or who makes extreme demands regarding alimony payments, visitation and custody rights or division of property. But some rabbis oppose the use of most prenuptials, claiming the agreements make it too easy for one side to end a marriage. They also argue that the use made in prenuptials of monetary incentives to encourage a recalcitrant partner to acquiesce to divorce is really a form of coercion prohibited by Jewish law. A prenuptial agreement can speed the divorce procedure significantly by creating a monetary incentive for the husband to divorce his wife. Prenuptial agreements dictate that in a case of divorce proceedings initiated by one of the two partners in a marriage, the recalcitrant side - usually the husband - will be obligated to pay a large sum of money monthly until the marriage is dissolved. The common amount stipulated is $1,500 or half of monthly income, whichever is higher. This obligation normally kicks in six months after the divorce proceedings are initiated. However, several prominent rabbis are opposed to use of most prenuptials. For instance, Rabbi Uriel Lavi, the head of the rabbinical court in Tiberias, has argued against the use of prenuptials as has Rabbi Avraham Sheinman of the High Rabbinical Court. But Rachel Lev-Mor, a rabbinical court advocate, said that the revolution in prenuptials has already started. "People who are getting married and the public figures who preside over these marriages are using them more and more," said Lev-Mor. "Rabbi after rabbi is quietly recommending it suggesting it to their students and their communities. Progress is being made." So far, no rabbinical divorce court has rejected the use of a prenuptial agreement, according to Shimon Ya'acobi, legal adviser to the rabbinical courts. "But you cannot expect the rabbinical courts to come in favor of prenuptials," said Ya'acobi. "The job of the rabbinical judge is to decide on each individual case that comes his way. He is not a legislator, he is an adjudicator."