Books: Legally sanctioned heartbreak

Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut take a closer look at the phenomenon of agunot.

A scene from ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.’ (photo credit: COURTESY MUSIC BOX FILMS)
A scene from ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.’
The original intention of a “get,” a Jewish decree of divorce, was to protect women. The idea was that the document would make it impossible for a husband to summarily divorce his wife and leave her without support.
Today, however, the requirement of a get in Jewish law is often the source of much pain for women, since husbands have the sole authority to grant it – or not. A woman who is locked in a dead marriage but can’t move on – because her husband refuses to issue a get – is known as an aguna.
A get can be withheld for spite, blackmail or extortion. There are women around the globe who have been waiting for a get for years – even decades.
Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut, who died in 2014, have been championing the cause of agunot for more than 30 years. Their book, The Wed-Locked Agunot: Orthodox Jewish Women Chained to Dead Marriages, is a heartbreaker.
The issue of agunot is an embarrassment for many traditional Jews. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how Jewish law, which stresses compassion to the extent that we are required to feed our animals before sitting down to eat ourselves, can leave so many women vulnerable to legal abuse at the hands of their estranged husbands.
The main legal stumbling block is that, according to Jewish law, the get must be granted of the man’s free will, without coercion.
Courts and rabbis claim that this ties their hands and makes it impossible to force a man to issue a get. Aranoff and Haut include numerous case studies that illustrate just how powerless a woman can be if her husband refuses to grant a get, even if they have been living apart and have been divorced civilly for many years.
The Wed-Locked Agunot tells its sad story systematically, covering the history of Aranoff and Haut’s work trying to find a way to free these women. Along the way, readers meet some good guys who work to alleviate the suffering of agunot, often at the cost of their own reputations. Sadly, readers also get to know many of the cold-blooded husbands and the incompetent, uncompassionate, even cruel men who populate the rabbinic court system.
It is a hard book to read. Readers with a commitment to Jewish law might find themselves embarrassed by what allegiance to Jewish law has cost thousands of women. Others might be angered by what they perceive as a negative representation of Jewish courts and the rabbinic judges who staff them. There are a lot of villains in this tragic book.
One of the most eye-opening chapters is “The Phantom Ketubah.” Aranoff and Haut call the ketuba, a central document in every traditional Jewish wedding, “an ancient prenuptial contract,” intended to protect the woman economically in the event of divorce or widowhood.
Shockingly, they reveal how the value of the ketuba is waived at nearly every get procedure.
“While waiting for the scribe to complete the document, Rabbi Kis took out a thin loose leaf binder and pushed it across the desk for Joan to look at. He referred her to the script inside, which she was to recite during the get proceeding. After he read a few innocuous lines in the script about her Hebrew and English names, any nicknames Joan had, her parents’ names, etc., Rabbi Kis said, ‘At this point in the proceedings you will be asked if you waive your ketuba.’ He instructed Joan to answer ‘Yes’ as indicated in the script....
This episode brought home to us the fact that we had never heard of a women receiving her ketuba money.”
Aranoff and Haut further reveal that “few rabbis had any idea how much a ketuba is worth today and that batei din [rabbinical courts] made no effort to collect the ketuba from husbands even in cases where the aguna is impoverished and has received no civil court financial settlement or has even given in to extortion in return for the get.”
Another sickening twist on the aguna story is the cases of vindictive men who make their daughters into child brides, in order to punish their estranged wives. In a chapter called “Child Brides,” Aranoff and Haut describe the case of Israel Goldstein.
“In 1993, Israel Goldstein... exercised the halachic power of fathers to betroth their minor daughters. Goldstein was a recalcitrant husband who had been withholding a get from his wife, Gita, a teacher in Bais Yaakov of Montreal, for four years.
He decided to tighten the thumbscrews on Gita by using his halachic power to turn his 11-year-old daughter into an aguna as well.”
In telling their calamitous stories, Aranoff and Haut use pseudonyms for many of the rabbis and claim that the cases they wrote about are merely representative.
Sadly, they are aware of, and have worked to assist, so many other agunot.
The book is well organized and clearly written. The reader is given an expanded view of the many stages of Aranoff and Haut’s 30+ years of advocacy. It’s an easy book for the eye and the brain to read, but very difficult for the emotions.
Chapter by chapter, case by case, The Wed-Locked Agunot breaks the reader’s heart. Nevertheless, the authors’ “extensive day-to-day experience with and intimate knowledge of the deeply flawed rabbinic court system and its impact on agunot and their families” make this book a must-read for anyone who cares about the integrity of Jewish law.