Getting smart

Rachel Levmore looks forward to the day when all engaged couples sign a prenuptial agreement.

chuppah wedding good 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chuppah wedding good 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Levmore became one of Israel's first to'anot (rabbinical court advocates) through the Women's Advocate Program of Ohr Torah Stone. Beginning with her earliest cases, she successfully unraveled knots of get (a rabbinical writ of divorce) refusal that had been deadlocked for years. As coordinator of the Rabbinical Courts' Aguna Unit, Levmore is always on the lookout for creative ways to free agunot, or as Levmore calls them, "husbandless wives" (women who cannot remarry because they are "chained" to an intransigent husband). Her ultimate goal is to prevent such cases from arising altogether, and her tool of the hour is the Prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect. Levmore, 53, who lives in Efrat, finalized the agreement with Rabbi Eliashiv Knohl and Rabbi David Ben-Zazzon in 2000, in consultation with many experts in the field. Since then Rabbinical Court director-general Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan has designated it as halachically valid, as reported in In Jerusalem this summer. Now Levmore's mission is to promote its wider use. The prenuptial agreement addresses agunot issues that arise in Israel, though it also contains a clause making it applicable in the United States. In the event that a spouse wishes to terminate the marriage, he or she must inform the other spouse in writing. If no response is given or no action taken within six months, the recipient of the letter must begin making payments of the shekel equivalent of at least $1,500 per month. This stipulation obligates a wife who refuses to accept a get exactly as it obligates a husband if he refuses to give it. "There are two sets of brakes" built into the agreement to prevent a too-quick or hasty divorce, says Levmore, a New York native. "First, if the spouse who receives the letter wants to, he can insist on their going for marital counseling for up to three sessions," she explains. If those three sessions, which must be completed within 180 days, do not result in reconciliation, "there's a second set of brakes," she continues. The marital therapist can say, once only, that if he or she had more time working with the couple, the marriage might be rehabilitated. In that case the couple must attend another three sessions, to be concluded in 90 days. If a reluctant spouse is still hesitant, "His own lawyer will tell him, 'You've got to start negotiating'" and advise against stalling tactics because in six months time, the $1,500 a month obligation goes into effect, Levmore explains. But how can someone agree to pay a sum that is nearly the entire net income of an average Israeli salary? Levmore explains that one can, halachically, obligate oneself to pay more than is in one's possession or potential earnings, though it may mean committing to loans. Levmore admits that one might ask, "Why should a loving young couple, soon to stand under the huppa, want to sign a document that refers to 'termination of the marriage'?" In responding, she highlights the caring nature of the document. "What could be more romantic than a young man who says, 'I love you so much! I want to protect you from any harm that could befall you - even from myself!'" she says. The preamble to the agreement incorporates its guiding philosophy: "The couple desires to act with respect for each other and resolve disputes among themselves with fairness in an agreeable manner, ...[and] have agreed to base their married life together on the grounds of love, harmony, peace, equality, respect, consideration, fairness and mutual concern." When asked if the agreement preaches to the converted because signatories are necessarily considerate and reasonable, Levmore responds: "Even reasonable people can behave unreasonably." She cites a pattern, or slippery slope as she calls it, that occurs when one partner hears the other wants to leave. "First they're hurt and in pain. 'Why? I thought we had a good marriage!' even if the unhappy spouse has been saying for 20 years, 'We need marital counseling!' Then their pain turns to anger. The anger leads to rage, which leads to revenge and that can lead to exploitation," she explains. "The prenuptial agreement stops the anger in its tracks" with its option for marital counseling, she adds. Levmore is quick to emphasize that the prenuptial agreement is a "pro-dignity" document, not "pro-divorce. "There will always be some couples who will seek divorce," she says. When that happens, the prenuptial agreement diminishes the consequent rancor and trauma and facilitates the quiet dignity of everyone involved, she explains. "It's like an insurance policy - you should never need it, but if you do, you'll be glad you had it." So does it work? Levmore cites the effectiveness of the parallel Rabbinical Council of America agreement, which has been widely used for many years. "In all cases where a prenuptial agreement had been signed before marriage, the divorce was completed in a timely fashion," Rabbi Yonah Reiss of the Beit Din of America said. When a get is delayed for many years, says Levmore, it's not just an issue of an individual's rights or women's autonomy, but the community's interest that is at stake. "If these women cannot begin new families during their childbearing years, think of the loss! And demographic growth is exponential - think of the total number of Jewish souls we have lost!" Tracking the objective results of the prenuptial agreement in Israel will be difficult, however, since there is no one single repository for the signed documents. "We will know if we've been successful only 15 years from the time it's widely used, if we see a drop in the cases of get refusal," Levmore says. 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