Civil marriage, for the sake of ‘agunot’

For most of us Israelis the Fast of Esther is hardly noted and often unobserved - it is a “minor” fast; but for us agunah activists it is major.

Couple holding a wedding rings 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Couple holding a wedding rings 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Spring is in the air. Purim beckons.
Passover looms. Missile ships on their way to Gaza are intercepted.
For most of us Israelis the Fast of Esther – the day before Purim – is hardly noted and often unobserved. It is a “minor” fast. But for us agunah activists it is major.
In recent years, we have designated the Fast of Esther to mark the suffering of the agunah – a woman anchored to a failed marriage.
Though I have dedicated much of my adult life to alleviating the suffering of the agunah, I do not look forward to The Fast. Each year we activists seem to be saying the same thing, pointing the same fingers, wailing the same wails, repeating ourselves: Bad husbands are to blame.
They need to be punished. Rabbinic judges should put more bad men in jail until they deliver a bill of divorce (a get).
Perhaps for life! At least for 20 years, as suggested recently by MK Dov Lipman; or indefinitely, in accordance with a current ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court.
Or maybe we should encourage our rabbis to prod bad husbands with stun-guns, like Rabbi Mendel Epstein – the “ProdFather” – is said to have done in New York City before he was arrested.
Indifferent rabbis are at fault. They need to be switched with more open rabbis, those more willing to impose the above mentioned punishments. We need to appoint rabbis to the rabbinic courts who are better able to interpret halacha in a flexible manner, in accordance with true Torah values. We need rabbis more empathetic to the suffering of women, rabbis more willing to leap through halachic hoops and declare that marriages are void ab initio, say, if a woman is married to a homosexual or an abuser. If the state-backed rabbinic judges cannot fit this bill, let’s start private rabbinic courts that will.
The Knesset is indifferent. We need more laws that allow our rabbis to apply more pressure on (the very few) bad husbands who have been imprisoned indefinitely.
Let’s take away the canteen privileges of these bad husbands, their right to talk on the phone, to eat strictly kosher food – as recently recommended by some MKs. And let’s insist that the Knesset only appoint rabbis to the rabbinic courts who will do these things.
Sign prenuptial agreements. That’ll do it. Never mind that prenups are rarely enforced and are just another right that women waive in exchange for the get. Or that the prenups most widely suggested and rabbinically approved are of no use at all if a husband is missing, unconscious, poor, or rich and vindictive. A prenup, after all, is better than nothing.
Shaming, that’s the way to go. Let’s go to the press. Hang pictures of bad husbands in public places. Put pressure on employers to fire family members of bad husbands from their jobs.
Wrong. After many years of similarly kvetching and suggesting, I have reached the conclusion that all the above is in error. We have been pointing fingers in the wrong direction, kvetching up the wrong tree, so to speak. Bad husbands, un-enlightened rabbis and indifferent Knesset members are not at fault. Prenups are at best palliative. Shaming is shameful. It is We the People who are to blame.
We the People – Jewish men as well as Jewish women all over the world – have to exercise civil disobedience and refuse to marry in ways that trap us in failed marriages. If our rabbis can’t figure out how to eradicate the purchase element in Jewish marriage (kinyan); to eliminate the unfettered power given husbands to divorce their wives and to set the terms (the get meuseh), and to stop punishing innocent children for the “sins” of their mothers (mamzer), we need to stop getting married “in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”
If we Israeli Jews cannot avoid the get trap by marrying in civil ceremonies outside the country, we need to simply not “marry” at all. Under Israeli law, common law couples enjoy almost all the benefits of married ones.
And, We the Israeli People – men and women of all religions – must demand that our Jewish and Democratic state cease coercing all of us to marry in accordance with our respective religious communities (“millets”) in ways that entrap us all in our respective failed patriarchal bargains. This means that we must demand that the state not only allow, but mandate, civil marriage and divorce for all Israel citizens. A democratic state cannot, by definition, coerce religious acts. It cannot compromise the covenant that We the People have made with the state – to protect our liberty, dignity, autonomy, and ensure the rule of law, for example.
If civil marriage became the law of the land in Israel, as I am advocating, Jewish marriage will be optional, but not required by the state. Divorce rules would be uniform for all Israeli citizens and mutual for men and women. There would be less agunot, since the state will not be legally constructing them in the first instance. And for those of us who might still opt to marry in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel in a manner that allows for such construction, the state could still come to our rescue without compromising its values by passing laws similar to the “Get Laws” enacted in New York, Canada and South Africa; or by continuing to award civil damages to agunot as Israeli Family Court Judges have been doing for the past decade, largely at the behest of the Center for Women’s Justice that I run.
But a democratic state cannot and should not help individual agunot – as it is currently doing – in ways that compromise the state’s value system and the covenant it has made with We the People.
This may be helping individual women harmed by religious laws, but it is a pox on all of us. Today the wrath and power of the state, as just one example, may be imposed on a few bad men for not obeying religious dictates. Tomorrow it can be imposed on you and me in ways that we have only begun to imagine.
And do not fear for the Jewish nature of the state. It will not be compromised by the embrace of civil marriage and by forgoing the construction of the agunah.
The Jewish state will still be using Hebrew as its official language, still have Saturday as its day of rest, still give employees off for Jewish holidays, and still provide kosher food in the army and government offices. Jewish symbols will still be on our flags and building. And, most importantly, by forgoing the Orthodox monopoly on things, the state will be fostering and encouraging all expressions and constructions of Jewishness – Orthodox, secular, reform, conservative, flexodox and open orthodoxy – without coercing one version or the other, providing for a healthy dialogue and a mosaic of Jewish living.
We need not fear civil marriage and divorce. We should embrace it as an expression of freedom and democratic values, as well as a way to ensure the free expression of Jewishness of the Jewish people. And should it come to pass that civil marriage is the Law of the Land, We the People of Israel – the Jews, as well as Israeli citizens of all religions – will have “light, and gladness, and joy, and honor” (Esther 8:16).
The author is the founder and director of the Center of for Women’s Justice.