While the aguna issue is one that our Jewish world has been challenged by for decades, observers of Jewish affairs would have noticed that several specific cases have been pushed to the front of our public attention in recent weeks.
“Aguna” – literally meaning a “trapped woman” – is the designation given to a wife whose husband refuses to provide her with a get, the Jewish legal writ of divorce which frees her to remarry.
Originally, this document was biblically established to ensure that when a marriage was no longer viable, the woman, who had fewer rights and economic opportunities in society, could not simply be discarded, and would exit the marriage with dignity and the financial wherewithal to establish a new life.
The Hebrew word for Jewish divorce, “get,” is composed of two letters that are never found together in the Torah – teaching us that just as it is appropriate to bring two people together in marriage, it is also sometimes a mitzvah to enable them to separate.
In fact, the institution of a get was biblically initiated as part of a series of laws to preclude spousal abuse – the first laws of this nature in human history.
Tragically this device is now being used by some men to place women in the position of the underdog. Whereas normative Halacha allows the husband, in cases of get refusal, to forge ahead with a new life and even remarry – albeit after undergoing an arduous process, his wife has no such option. As such, the biblical institution designed for her well-being has been turned on its head by a group of spousal terrorists.
The increased attention to this issue has been brought about by the fact that specific get-refusers are being publicly shamed (as they should be) on increasingly impactful social media channels – all at one time. The uptick in public interest is certainly the result of dedicated efforts of Instagram and other influencers, and they must be praised for what they are achieving. In these cases, the actions of several prominent women essentially stating “enough is enough” has harnessed the power of our increasingly interconnected world to bring shame to these men and in so doing force them to relent and give their wives the freedom they deserve.
But beyond those efforts, or more appropriately in partnership with them, it is no less imperative that we, as Jewish rabbinical and communal leaders, seize the momentum to find new and efficient solutions to what is nothing less than a moral halachic crisis.
By all estimations, get refusal is a cowardly and despicable act. After several decades in the rabbinate, I am fully aware that divorces can be messy and deeply challenging for both sides.
Indeed, there are often considerations that place one of the parties in a situation where they are being unfairly manipulated by the other.
Yet, disagreement – however bitter – is never an excuse for either spouse to use the get to wield power over another (and, yes, it is most often the husband who wields the power).
Both civil and rabbinical courts must be the avenues pursued to negotiate and resolve conflicts. Simply put, get refusal is something that should never be considered, nor ever condoned.
TO THIS day, the halachic prenuptial agreement is the only normative halachic avenue that is available to prevent this form of abuse. The proof is found in the thousands of couples that have used the prenup developed by Rabbi Mordechai Willig and the Beit Din of America, which has been used for decades; and amongst those who have signed it, there has not been even one case of aguna. In fact, the halachic prenup has been so effective that there is even a YouTube channel organized by recalcitrant spouses encouraging future brides and grooms and their parents not to sign it.
Yet, while it is an accessible and practical option, it is embraced primarily by the US Modern Orthodox community and not yet widely embraced by the other streams of the Jewish community, which insists on a get.
As a rabbi, and someone who believes that the halachic process must be respected and adhered to because it is a central aspect of who we are as a people, I admit that this is a failure. To date, the Orthodox rabbinical community, particularly in Israel, has not recognized the power of the prenup and has not done what is necessary to promote its use to significantly mitigate the epidemic of get abuse. On the contrary, it has often discouraged its use.
This is not a halachic failure; it is an institutional one. Simply put, we have not yet been able to build a widespread enough consensus within the Jewish world for these measures to be universally embraced.
I wholly believe that if halachic prenups would become commonly accepted, we would be able to put most of the aguna crisis behind us. Every officiating rabbi should approach the issue of the halachic prenup with the same level of seriousness that they give to the integrity of the ketubah, and indeed I believe that it is rabbinic malpractice to perform a wedding without a couple signing a halachic prenup before the huppah.
This is one practical solution through which we can effect real change.
BUT ALONGSIDE this practical approach, which we must continue to actively pursue, there is a secondary institutional failure that allows the aguna crisis to prevail – a lack of knowledgeable women who can advocate and better connect with female clients in the rabbinical courts.
Blessedly, over the past 20 to 30 years, women have been raised to great heights within Jewish scholarship, leadership and activism, and many of the greatest champions of causes of importance to our people are in fact women.
Included are the dozen to’anot rabbaniyot (a name coined by the Israel Chief Rabbi’s Office), Rabbinical Court advocates from Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center for Agunot. These women, who have mastered the halachic language and procedures that govern the religious justice system in addition to civil law, have been fighting the uphill battle against get abusers by representing and freeing hundreds of trapped women each year, for the past several years.
I believe the time has come to ensure the placement of such women advocates in rabbinical courts across the world. The Israeli Rabbinical Courts greatly appreciate and respect our advocates’ knowledge and dedication, and there is no reason that women cannot train to be such advocates in the Diaspora. Through the combined efforts and resources of the leading players in this field, an organizational infrastructure needs to be created, linking halachic and legal figures in Israel and the Diaspora that would make a female advocate available for every single case where it is deemed necessary.
This would ensure that each woman who comes before the court will know that she has a trusted ally who appreciates her unique halachic, personal and emotional challenges and will fight for her freedom as though it were her own.
I congratulate the two Diaspora rabbinical courts that have followed our lead and now have at least female administrative attorneys involved in the get process. It is a step in the right direction, but their lack of full halachic scholarship in the area hinders their full-throated advocacy in difficult aguna cases.
This lack of a female voice in the rabbinical courts in family law, especially for agunot, impedes us from showing proper concern for the female clients that need to come to the beit din. The beit din is charged with appreciating the plight of others and engaging in tzedek and hessed, justice and kindness.
To achieve that, we need to be insightful enough to recognize that in many cases, such an advocacy role for women seeking a get is best served by a woman. Women who are trained to represent others in the beit din may at times be able to connect more effectively halachicly, psychologically and emotionally, not to mention the additional comfort level that a female client may have in discussing personal matters such as abuse or visitation.
THE EXACT recipe for more female inclusion may not be simple, nor is it without controversy, but it is a discussion that must take place at all levels, and must be followed by real action. The voice of the aguna cries out to be heard.
As proud Jewish leaders, men and women alike, it is our responsibility to ensure that we herald this moment to listen to her cry and promise that it be heard in a way that creates real and lasting change.The writer is president and rosh yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of 30 institutions and programs, among them Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot.