‘My mother has been an aguna for 70 years and is 100 years old. As she nears the end of her days, she would feel good to receive a get. Can you help her?”
The writer, in his mid-seventies, had decided to bring peace of mind to his elderly mother. The email he sent cut into my heart and boggled my mind. How can it be? Moreover, is there enough time left to bring a resolution to this aguna’s pain?
Marrying a soldier serving in the Allied Forces during WWII, the Orthodox young woman did not have the options that are available today to protect herself. No, the groom was not MIA. This was a man-made tragedy.
The couple established a home and had their first child. After a few years, the husband left his wife and child in search of a land of opportunity. Despite having promised to send for her, he did not do so. His unfulfilled promise did not faze this strong woman. She found him in the country where he had settled and traveled there to maintain their family.
Following the birth of a second child, he left, ostensibly on a business trip from which he never returned. Although reports were heard of him cheating people out of their money, he was nowhere to be found. Years of searches by police, authorities and a private investigator proved to be fruitless until this very day. The young mother was left with two small children with no means of support, saddled with debts in a foreign land.
Unable to return home, one relative paid for her passage while another took her and her children into his home. In those years, the only childcare was that of the mother so that the aguna could not go out to work. As the years passed, the woman found a way to stand on her own and developed into a businesswoman.
Pleading her case
During those decades, the aguna repeatedly pleaded her case before rabbis and rabbinical courts in both countries, to no avail. The response of each was identical: You need a get (divorce document) and there is nothing we can do.The case was even brought before the chief rabbi of Israel, whose answer was more explicit: The fact that the husband was a cheat proved that he is a wicked man who is capable of abandoning his wife and children while still living. You are an aguna.
This intelligent, strong woman built her life in an impressive manner – but was always affected by the fact that she was an aguna. The rabbis’ seeming refusal to help, those who are the authorities in Judaism, added to the existential angst of 70 years.
There is no happy end to the closing chapter of this life. Although I was able to offer a resolution to the problem, after a lifetime of suffering the woman was almost indifferent. Her trust in rabbis and rabbinics was long gone.
There is nothing more that can be added to drive home the point that the existence of an aguna problem is an untenable situation. When rabbinic authorities do not rise to the challenge of solving the problem in both a preventative manner and through curative mechanisms within Jewish law, then it is up to the individuals to exercise their autonomy and prevent themselves from falling into the situation of get-refusal or falling an aguna.
All it takes is the signatures of the marrying couple on the halachic Agreement for Mutual Respect (iyim.org.il) to prevent get-refusal and on the halachic Tripartite Agreement (jewishprenup.org) to prevent the aguna problem. Take the responsibility of a lifetime, literally, into your own hands.
International Aguna Day is marked annually on the Fast of Esther, which falls this year on Monday, March 6.
The writer is the director of the Aguna and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel in Israel (iyim.org.il/prenup) and the Jewish Agency. She holds a Ph.D. in rabbinic law, is an author of the Agreement for Mutual Respect and is the first female rabbinical court advocate to sit on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.