On International Agunah Day: Follow my lead

Actions speak louder than words.

Divorce (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Have you noticed the laypeople motivating, albeit incrementally, the rabbis? Remove the politicians from the turbulent Israeli mix of religion and state, focus on the foundation of Jewish identity – personal status – and you’ll see some signs of openness to innovation in the rulings and attitude of the rabbis. In most cases it is not self-inspiration motivating the rabbis, rather it is a reaction to the people.
Whether we speak of rabbinical court judges – under whose jurisdiction all Jewish residents of the State of Israel fall – or community rabbis, there has been a slow change in the approach to the status of spouses in a marriage, particularly that of the woman.
For the judges it is in end-of-marriage issues, while for the community rabbis the change is occurring at the point the couples marry.
Ordinarily, rabbinical court judges are reactionary – in both senses of the word.
They are conservative in their approach to the interpretation of Jewish divorce law and their rulings are in reaction to the challenges presented to them. Although the problem of women chained to unwanted marriages as agunot is as serious as ever, recently there have been several surprising rulings seeking to resolve specific cases. In the High Rabbinical Court, a panel presided over by Chief Rabbi David Lau allowed the “shaming” of a get-refuser (a get is a Jewish writ of divorce) in social media for the first time in history. The story went viral, and was then published in the media. It remains to be seen whether this was effective in bringing the get-refuser to heed the court’s ruling to free his wife. This month, in a ground-breaking ruling, Rabbi Shlomo Shtessman, the presiding judge in a regional court, found a basis in civil and Jewish law upon which he ordered the incarceration of the father of a husband who had abandoned his wife 10 years earlier, for directing his son not to give the get.
These are examples of heretofore unknown engagement with society’s modern tools by the rabbinic judges.
When examining community rabbis’ attitude when preparing couples to marry, more and more rabbis are catching on that they can actually prevent the young woman they marry off from becoming an agunah by having the couple sign a prenuptial agreement.
Rabbinic organizations, such as Beit Hillel and Tzohar, actually recommend marrying couples sign a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal. Unfortunately, those rabbis are few in number.
Which brings the responsibility back to the laypeople to take action. Recently, well over 200 residents of Gush Etzion gathered at a “Postnuptial Signing Party.” This was a community-based event organized by the International Young Israel Movement in Israel together with the Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion, chaired by community leaders. Over 90 couples of all stages of marriage, from newlyweds to one couple married for half a century, celebrated their signing of a postnuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect” for the prevention of get-refusal. They did so to serve as a personal example for their children, neighbors and extended community – driving home the message: all marrying couples must sign an agreement for the prevention of get-refusal.
Actions speak louder than words. Follow the lead of the good people of Gush Etzion.
Lead the way in providing at least one preventative solution for the blight on Jewish society – sign a pre- or a postnuptial agreement, preventing the possibility that a woman can be made into an agunah. For the rabbis – both those that serve the local communities and those that serve in the rabbinical courts – will hopefully follow your lead.
International Agunah Day is marked yearly on the Fast of Esther, falling this year on March 23.
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate, 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 Talmud and is one of the authors of the Israeli prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect.”