US court validates halachic prenuptial agreement

"If now they would only do something of the sort in Israel," says Talmud instructor at Bar-Ilan University

Haredi Wedding (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi Wedding
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
An American court last week upheld the legality of a rabbinic prenuptial agreement meant to protect women from becoming agunot, the Talmudic term which means “chained women” and refers to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce document known as a get.
Despite receiving a civil divorce, Orthodox women are restricted from remarrying according to Jewish law until they are granted a religious divorce as well.
The prenuptial document in question was drafted by the Bet Din of America, a modern-orthodox rabbinical court, and is considered binding according to Halacha.
The requirement for observant women to receive a get gives great power to husbands when splitting assets. The withholding of this document has been used to exert leverage on wives to pay exorbitant amounts, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, during a divorce settlement. The threat of not being granted a get hangs over many women in Israel and the United States, according to women’s rights groups like Israel’s Mavoi Satum (“dead end”).
Its director, attorney Batya Kahane-Dror, says that “thousands of women are in captivity [in Israel] and cannot continue their lives, establish new families or have children.”
Rachel and Eben Light’s “halachic prenup,” as it has come to be known in orthodox circles, was upheld as legal by a Connecticut court during divorce proceedings.
Light and her husband Eben, had already been separated for a number of years.
Since Eben signed the rabbinic prenuptial agreement, Judge Mark Gould said Rachel may be able to demand over $100,000 as well as $100 on a daily basis until she is granted a Jewish divorce, the Jewish Daily Forward reported on Friday.
The Bet Din of America’s version of the halachic prenup was written in the early 1990s, but it took two decades before one was tested in court.
“The unanswered question with regard to the prenup was always: Will it be enforceable in civil court?” Sasan Aranoff of the rights group Agunah International told the Forward.
However, now Jewish men are aware that “there is a cost for withholding the get,” she said.
While some rabbis in America believe these agreements to be commonplace in more modern communities, the recent acceptance of their legality by the secular court system may make them more appealing to other sectors within American orthodoxy.
According to the text of the document, a groom prior to his wedding obligates himself “to support [his] wife-to-be from the date that [their] domestic residence together shall cease for whatever reasons, at the rate of $150 per day.”
“I acknowledge that I have from now effected the above obligation by means of a kinyan [a formal Jewish transaction] in a hashuv [respectable] Beth Din as prescribed by Jewish law,” the document signed by the groom continues.
Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, Talmud instructor at Bar-Ilan University who was involved in the development of the prenuptial agreement, praised the court’s decision on Facebook.
“This was the enduring contribution of the Yeshiva University-sponsored Orthodox Caucus (which I directed at the time),” Woolf posted. “Kudos to the members who sponsored it, to Rabbi Mordechai Willig who formulated it, and to the Rabbinical Council of America that endorsed it. If now they would only do something of the sort in Israel.”
According to Kahane-Dror, Mavoi Satum has been promoting a similar document which, she says, is recognized by the Israeli legal system.
She advises couples to sign such agreements before getting married.
“It is important to know that in Israel we encourage making prenuptial agreements.”
There are several options available in terms of legal agreements, Kahane-Dror said, and even if a husband “runs away, disappears or goes crazy, the wedding expires retroactively without a get.”
“Our experience confirms that courts approve [the terms] of these agreements,” she said.
Despite the media furor over last week's ruling, however, Rabbi Jeremy Stern of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that it "not the first civil court ruling to uphold the prenup."
"The prenup has been enforced repeatedly since its inception in the early 1990's. From our perspective at the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Beth Din of America's halakhic prenup has been extremely effective in assuring that a get is giving in a timely fashion.  We do not have any cases at ORA in which a prenup that was properly signed and produced for the courts did not result in the issuance of a get in a relatively short period of time."
Stern said that he hopes that the publicity generated by the Connecticut case serves to "make it clear to the Orthodox community that we have an imperative to effectively eradicate the agunah problem by standardizing the use of the halakhic prenup."