The Human Spirit: When the community tries to free a chained woman

Shouldn't the use of disappearance as a strategy 'to win' at a divorce be beyond the limits?

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Devora was 19 when the match was proposed with Akiva Yosef, 23, the scholarly son of a distinguished family from another city. The match looked splendid and promising, one that would unite two great families with similar worldviews. Today Devora is 31 and an aguna, a woman chained to a dead marriage, bringing up their two children alone. Akiva Yosef is 35 and hiding somewhere in the world. His family claim that they can't find him, and somewhere those who claim to be religious are shielding him from detection. Who can dissect a failed marriage, with all its misery and disappointment? Devora's and Akiva Yosef's wretched marriage lasted eight years, after which the couple separated and returned to their respective parents. Several years of grappling in the rabbinical courts followed, including battles over child custody and serious charges of irregularities in court procedures. In the end, the Rabbinical High Court awarded custody of the couple's son and daughter to the mother, and ordered Akiva Yosef to grant Devora a bill of divorce. If he refused, the court would put him in jail. When the ruling came through last summer, Akiva Yosef had already disappeared. He's presumed to be hiding outside the country. Vanishing would seem to be harder these days, when e-mail, social networks and Internet search engines are so comprehensive. The missing husband isn't Osama bin Laden in a cave, but a man who has spent his life enveloped by family and a Torah community. Even if he has sufficient funds to live on his own, wouldn't he ever need a family member to guarantee a rental lease or forward a driver's license? Wouldn't a Torah scholar seek a synagogue on Yom Kippur or give in to the impulse to be called up to the Torah? When the name Akiva Yosef ben Ploni was called aloud, wouldn't the congregation gasp and recoil at the presence of an outlaw who has shamed the Jewish people? Wouldn't they cast him out like the crew on Jonah's ship cast out Jonah? A year and a half has passed since Akiva Yosef disappeared. So far, no one has turned him in. FRIENDS AND COWORKERS of Devora's organize an evening of study and consideration to encourage her and other agunot, and to raise public consciousness of the suffering of such women. The hall is rented by employees of one of the city's most respected institutions, for which Devora also works. Devora was approached by this paper in the past, but refused to go public. But now she has changed her mind. She has a PowerPoint presentation of documents. "Countless mediations have been suggested, but nothing has come out of them," she says. "Maybe there's another way." Some 200 men and women are present to hear her story and decide on action. What can they do to help? Devora's sad story is different from most of the sagas of the misery of agunot, in which anger is usually addressed primarily at the rabbinical court for alleged slowness in demanding that the recalcitrant husband divorce his wife. In her case, the beit din has not only ruled, but has publicized the story in The Jerusalem Post in an attempt to find him. This time it's the husband's family complaining about the corruption of the beit din. They have impressive documents to support their grievances. THE FOCUS OF DEVORA'S complaints are the parents of her missing husband, whom she believes helped him leave the country and whom she insists are able to find him. Akiva Yosef's father is a rabbi and his mother works for a respected institution of Jewish learning. Social pressure and even physical abuse are tools long applied by Jewish communities to get a recalcitrant husband to sign a bill of divorce, but how far can a community go in pressuring his family? Is it legitimate, as some suggested, for a community to picket the home and places of work, to disrupt the rabbi's synagogue sermons, or target the recalcitrant husband's siblings? In the audience, a new divorcee who has gone through an identical case - except that her husband was missing for six years - strengthens the argument for demonstrations against the family. She says her husband came out of hiding when her friends threatened to ruin his niece's wedding. Said the divorcee, "Going into hiding and leaving your wife an aguna is considered a legitimate tactic in 'winning' in divorce negotiations, softening a wife's position on custody and child-support payments." In England, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reports success in personally carrying on marathon negotiations with warring families until a resolution is reached. While researching this article, a suggestion was made to me, by a party close to one side, that someone accepted by both parties could renegotiate the settlement between Devora and Akiva Yosef, with Akiva Yosef's parents standing as proxy for their son. The results would be publicized, and he would be given a week to come out of hiding. I do some checking about who might be a possible negotiator, and phone a prominent rabbi from one of Israel's larger cities, not either of the cities from which the battling parties hail. He is a rabbinic leader reputed to have personal experience in resolving just such a situation. Could he step in? His wife, the rabbanit, phones me back to beg off, insisting that I am mistaken and that her husband doesn't have such expertise. This doesn't mean, of course, that other rabbis will not be more forthcoming, but it is a disappointing beginning. AKIVA YOSEF'S parents have publicly and privately said they deplore their son's behavior and do not know where he is. They deny having influence over him. His father, the rabbi, phones me and tell me that the meeting had "spilled the blood of his family," and invites me to his home to go over the details of the beit din case once again. I understand the irregularities in the case, but to me the use of disappearance as a strategy "to win" at a divorce is beyond the limits of any divorce proceedings. There are other weapons that are equally unacceptable in my opinion - for instance stalking Akiva Yosef's siblings and sabotaging their lives. What about the rabbi's synagogue? According to the head of the congregation committee, he and many of his fellow congregants fully accept the rabbi's denial. Other members of the congregation think otherwise and worry that allowing the synagogue to function as usual is condoning complicity in the misery of the aguna. A synagogue member claims that she is shunned and others threatened for criticizing the rabbi's role in this situation. The head of the committee denies this. Interruption, he maintains, is "showing disrespect for the sanctity of the synagogue." "I'm not in a position to judge anyone," says the committee chairman. Indeed, who can adjudicate in such a situation? IT TURNS OUT that the civil courts are willing to get involved. According to attorney Susan Weiss, who heads the Center for Women's Justice in Jerusalem, in July 2008 Jerusalem Family Court Judge Nilli Maimon ruled that family members can be held liable if they aid and abet recalcitrant husbands. Attorneys for another abandoned woman sued her mother-in-law, brothers-in-law and sister-in-law in civil court for not coming forward with information leading to her missing husband, and the husband agreed to a divorce. Divorce brings out the worst in people. Day after day, the stakes get higher, relations plummet to a new, unrecognizable nadir. Worst of all, children become pawns in struggles that are really about pride and revenge. My first question to the Messiah will be why Jewish law was assumed to be structured that the possibility of chaining another human being exists in our usually enlightened Jewish tradition. In the meantime, those who love Judaism must do everything possible to ensure that no one exploits this problematical option, which only brings suffering to a family and calumny to the Jewish people. Rabbis of stature, please step forward and use your influence to resolve these abuses of power. Jewish communities: Are you harboring a Jewish fugitive? Make him go home and divorce his wife. We are preparing to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, a holiday which emphasizes the attributes of kindness within our tradition. I can't think of a better time to use all of our resources to remove the stain of agunim and agunot from those who once stood together at Sinai and pledged to be a holy people. (Devora and Akiva Yosef are pseudonyms.)