Insta-shaming is not enough, we need a solution for Agunot - opinion

Instagram is not novel, the medium is new, but the message is the same.

THE RABBINICAL Court’s Division for Agunot in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
THE RABBINICAL Court’s Division for Agunot in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
"Ma nishtana?" are the first two words at the beginning of the Four Questions traditionally asked by the youngest child attending the Passover Seder.
"Why is tonight different from all other nights?"
This year, as I prepared for the Seder, commemorating Jewish redemption from enslavement, I found myself asking, ‘”Why is the Instagram movement to unchain women from marriage different from all other movements that came before?”
As an academic for more than a decade I’ve been observing and assessing the activist and grassroots movements around the abuse that is get (Jewish divorce) refusal.
Now that “influencers” on Instagram are taking up the cause, I am left wondering why their method is being depicted as distinct, revolutionary and unprecedented?
Ma nishtana?
To be clear, I support women’s empowerment, and when women lift other women that must be celebrated. When it exacts a get, all the more so (even if self-promotion of an influencer is also on the agenda). To free one woman is to free her parents, her children, her future children and their children, even entire communities.
However, there are two key issues at play:
First, this “insta-advocacy” is not actually distinct, revolutionary or unprecedented. It’s part of a longstanding tradition that has embraced new mediums over time.
Second, rather than crediting the current “influencers” for their social media vigilantism, the spotlight would be better placed on stressing that shaming is a Band-Aid and not a cure.
In the early 1900s, Der Forverts, The Jewish Daily Forward, one of the first national newspapers in the US to reach hundreds of thousands of readers, published a semi-regular feature titled “A Galeriye fon Farshvandene Mener,” or “Gallery of Vanished Husbands.”
These features served as “wanted” ads for husbands who had disappeared (often returning to the old country from which they recently immigrated), abandoning their wives and children. The communities stepped in, cared for these families, and took creative initiative by using the media of the day. They publicly shamed and shed light on this issue, forcing vanished husbands to take responsibility and do right by their families.
This is actually the classic aguna situation: a woman chained to her marriage, unable to move on because the whereabouts of her husband are unknown. Without a get, she remains married.
What we see today is a re-imagined, rebooted version of a venerable tradition. Perhaps the type of aguna has changed, but the methods remain the same.
Today, women are openly refused a get by recalcitrant men whose whereabouts are known, making them more accurately mesuravot get, women refused a get.
The modern-day insta-stories and hashtags so clearly hearken back to the printed wanted ads, the original, innovative images from well over 100 years ago. Those were unprecedented, revolutionary and distinct, and it would be remiss not to point that out but the movement began even earlier.
Rabbeinu Tam of the 12th century introduced communities to herem, traditional acts taken to isolate men who refused to grant a get, such as ostracism. This included banning them from synagogues and communal establishments. The critique of traditional herem is that abusive husbands can move, joining new communities or synagogues easily, leaving their bad behavior behind them, like the vanished absconders of the 1900s.
“E-shaming,” a term I coined in my doctoral work in relation to the aguna issue, stops husbands from disappearing. The Internet cuts across boundaries and networks of affiliation, effectively chaining husbands to their choice to chain their wives.
NEW TECHNOLOGY and increased globalization have served as powerful tools to fight get refusal. Although some have found the act of shaming shameful in and of itself, (an ironic example can be found in the same Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood blog). As I’ve said before, we must use every tool in our toolbox.
This nexus of get refusal and technology has, for many years, re-empowered the traditional herem mechanism, turning a traditional, virtually obsolete tool into an expedient, digital tool of the 20th and 21st centuries. Instagram is not novel, the medium is new, but the message is the same.
The current, trendy movement by today’s “insta-influencers” stands on the shoulders of those that preceded them. In Canada, Evelyn Brook, Norma Joseph, the Get Law Committee, and Sharon Shore; in the US, Blu Greenberg, Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) and Mayim Bialik; in Israel, Alice Shalvi, Sharon Shenhav, Yad La’Isha, Rachel Levmore and Ruth Halperin Kaddari. This is far from an exhaustive list.
It’s important to acknowledge the history and the real influencers behind today’s movement to show there is a strong foundation that will endure long past this insta-trend, when influencers return to promoting their products and finding more followers.
So, ma nishtana? Sadly, not much.
Rather than celebrating the “new” social media vigilantism or a legitimate use of cancel culture, the media covering the movement, and the movement itself, should highlight that while shaming is highly effective at times, it is actually only a treatment for the symptoms, but not a cure for the cause.
While we must use it as one of the many tools in our toolbox, along with pre-nuptial agreements and other remedies in accordance with Halacha (Jewish law), not every aguna feels comfortable with e-shaming. Furthermore, e-shaming will not always exact a get.
The real story should not only be online, in the papers, or at rallies, but must be told in day schools, yeshivas, synagogues, marriage classes (chosson/kallah classes) and throughout our communities. We must challenge the notion that a get is negotiable! This was never a halachic principle, this was learned behavior. Just as we learned it, we must un-learn it.
As long as our papers still print opinions such as “I understood the advantage of having the exclusive right to give or withhold a get,” as long as men assert their rights to abuse their wives, as long as parents and siblings support their abusive sons and brothers, as long as the family aids and abets other recalcitrant men, online influencers can only go so far. This is reacting to rather than solving the phenomenon of get refusal, like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole.
This trendy wave of activism has had success. That must be celebrated. But in reality, this wave of activism is not ground-breaking. When the influencers get back to their regularly scheduled programming and move on to the next trend, women need to know that there have always been and there will continue to be real-world influencers and organizations that have dedicated themselves to this issue. Mesuravot get were not alone before Instagram and they won’t be alone when other issues begin to trend.
This year they are chained, next year, let them be free, “Hashata avdei. L’shana haba’ah bnei chorin. Last year we were enslaved, by next year may be free.”
Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is a professor of law and society at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and is working on her first book, having conducted the first comprehensive, qualitative study of Jewish divorce refusal and the first comparative study between Toronto and New York. Contact her at [email protected]