A plea from Jerusalem to the world’s Orthodox rabbis

There is a way to solve the agunah problem – go back to the source, to the methodology of the Talmudic giants, gather together in an all-encompassing beit midrash in order to resolve it together.

Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is a way. Understandably, our exile of 2,000 years has caused our rabbis to grapple with Jewish law in general, and specifically with the agunah problem, in a localized, piecemeal, circumstance-based manner. Nevertheless, the creation of the State of Israel – concentrating Jewish life to a degree not felt in millennia – together with the advent of instant global communication and community, actually affords us the opportunity to return to an ancient methodology – the centralized beit midrash.
Our magnificent corpus of Jewish law is a product of individual, anecdotal-based development. For 2,000 years, during the entire process of the development of rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis and decisors ruled in a reactive manner.
The accepted approach was to deal with each problem as it arose, with some solutions becoming precedents upon which future decisors could rely. The thought processes did not address blanket solutions, in a global manner, applicable to all Jews. Neither, in general, did the rabbis, think about preventative solutions which would pre-empt societal problems. In very few instances was a global, preventative regulation enacted – all of which were within the laws of finance dealing with market forces to ensure a healthy economy.
Furthermore, in each generation there were rabbinic giants who were accepted as the greatest authority on complex questions of Jewish law. These giants of Torah afforded Jewish communities worldwide a type of central authority. The rabbis of this stature were so respected for their vast knowledge and brilliance of jurisprudence that their rulings were universally accepted among Orthodox Jews. Their leadership in Jewish law was the glue that held the many sectors of Orthodoxy together in Orthodox practice.
However, two processes have occurred simultaneously in Orthodox Jewish society causing this not to be the case today. The first is specific – all the recognized, accepted Torah giants of the recent generation have passed away. We no longer have Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, or Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (to name just two) to turn to in dire circumstances.
There is no universally recognized giant of Torah on whom all of the Orthodox Jewish world would rely.
Secondly, in general society, we are witness to the disintegration of respect for authority. Two examples are the now all too common layman’s challenge of a doctor’s diagnosis and medical instructions, as well as the online vitriol aimed at heads of governments. The lack of deference is accompanied by an emphasis on the exercise of personal autonomy. This phenomenon has not skipped over Orthodox Jews, of all sectors.
In fact, in the Orthodox world it is exacerbated by the blessed phenomenon of the unprecedented spread of high-level Torah study together with instant access to Jewish law sources.
These two factors, the absence of a central rabbinic authority along with the ongoing degeneration of subservience as we once knew it to any rabbinic figure, has brought Orthodoxy to a defining moment of crisis proportions. Although it may be unnoticed by the rabbinic leaders – most likely due to the fact that each individual rabbi feels that he holds sway over his “community,” whether it be a synagogue, yeshiva, neighborhood or an entire rabbinical court system – an honest evaluation of what stands before rabbinic Judaism at this point in history should impart a sense of urgency due to the imminent fragmentation of that which traditionally bound Orthodox Jews the world over.
The most vital of issues which has already begun to chisel away at the Orthodox collective is the agunah problem – that of the woman “chained” to an unwanted marriage. The resistance of Orthodox rabbis, as a defined group, to solving the agunah problem is bringing about a silent disaster. Even without taking into consideration the existential suffering of each particular woman who is a world onto herself, Judaism itself is harmed in two manners – from within and from without.
From within, Orthodoxy is losing individuals both in Israel and in the Diaspora at an accelerated rate. Increasing numbers of couples choose to marry in ceremonies which are specifically not in accordance with Jewish law or not to marry at all. Agunot, for fear of offspring stigmatized as “mamzerim” for generations to come – forbidden to marry within the Jewish community – are prevented from bearing children, leading to an exponential loss of Jewish population growth. Then there are those agunot who, whether in a conscious act of defiance or not, choose to create a new family unit and give birth to children who do bear “mamzer” status. Additionally, there are young women who fear marriage after witnessing get-refusal and do not search for a partner. These are facts.
On the outside looking in, general society witnesses a terrible desecration of God’s name. In an age where domestic abuse is considered criminal, the fact that the leaders of the Jewish community do not put a stop to the wifeabuse phenomenon of get-refusal is unfathomable.
We have already lost the central authorities who could have solved the agunah problem in a manner acceptable to all. Before it is too late and prior to reaching the point of no return, the agunah problem must be solved by Orthodoxy as a whole unit and in a global manner: rabbis from all over the world must gather together, physically and virtually.
Every rabbi who holds sway over his “community”; each rabbi who knows that he is a leader; Talmudic scholars and decisors of Jewish law representing all of the Orthodox factions from ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, yeshiva-trained, Modern Orthodox to undefined – must assemble together in a beit midrash, a Talmudic study hall. The doors of this authentic beit midrash should be open to all of Orthodoxy.
Those Orthodox scholars who have actually developed treatments to the problem which have been summarily discarded and rejected by others should stand before the entire cadre of great Torah scholars and present their cases, methodology and solutions.
The traditional method of honest give and take, deep discussion, challenging of points and their defense, the face-to-face addressing of contentious points can winnow the wheat from the chaff, having the potential of ultimately bringing about the acceptance of a variety of solutions – both preventative of the agunah problem or actually solving an existing agunah problem. This combined effort should be maintained until the fog clears and a collection of solutions has been agreed upon by the leaders of all sectors of Orthodox Judaism, which will form an integrated solution greater than the sum of its parts.
The resolution of the agunah problem is fundamental to the continued existence of Orthodox Judaism, allowing its members to marry freely within Jewish society. There is a way to solve the agunah problem – go back to the source, to the methodology of the Talmudic giants, gather together in an all-encompassing beit midrash in order to resolve it together.
International Agunah Day is marked yearly on the Fast of Esther, Thursday March 9 this year.
The writer is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency, holds a PhD in rabbinic law and is the first female rabbinical court advocate to sit on the Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges. She is a member of Beit Hillel and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get refusal.