Jews, we have a problem

The ‘aguna issue’ is alive and unresolved. On February 25, we are raising awareness about this halachic problem.

Jerusalem Rabbanut 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Rabbanut 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The brief contents of the e-mail were as follows (identifying details have been removed. Nothing has been altered): “This woman applied to … for help. She lives near …, England, is separated from her husband and spoke to the following dayanim in ... They told her ‘there is nothing they can do if the husband refuses to come to the beit din.’ … The woman said her husband has been very verbally abusive, manipulative and threatening. Can anyone in England help her through the beit din process? Or have any suggestions?”
A wife, such as the one described above, who wants to free herself from an unwanted Jewish marriage but whose personal status according to Jewish law is that of a married woman, suffers every moment her husband does not simply give her the get [divorce decree]. She is known as a “chained woman,” an aguna.
In the Diaspora, the parties can simultaneously be civilly divorced while not divorced in accordance with Jewish law. In Israel, where the civil family law regarding divorce is Jewish law, they will not even be civilly divorced. Spouses live apart, cannot co-parent their joint children peacefully and are at war, with terrible emotions permeating every aspect of their lives. The woman cannot remarry in a Jewish marriage and build another family. All this because one spouse refuses to let go of his former loved one in a respectful, dignified and halachic manner. The e-mail above is a fairly typical cry for help, which is heard with increasing frequency throughout the Jewish world. THE “AGUNA problem” is still alive and unresolved. One day a year was set aside to raise awareness about this halachic and societal problem which attacks the very core of a healthy Jewish society – the family unit. That day is “Ta’anit Esther” in the Hebrew calendar – the Fast of Esther. (That is the biblical Queen Esther who was held against her will in the palace of the ruler of Persia, approximately the fourth century BCE.) This year it falls on February 25.
This is not a problematic “situation” specific to the New York area or Israel. From the comfort of my office in Jerusalem, with the aid of my phone, fax, computer and wits, I have pursued absconding husbands around the globe: in Argentina, Australia, California, Canada, England, France, Iran, Missouri, Russia, Texas, Thailand and even Liberia! Liberia – where there are not even any Jews! It used to be that the aguna problem existed wherever Jews lived. Then it progressed, following Jews to wherever they could go. Today it extends even to countries where they can’t go – even Afghanistan.
Interestingly, Prof. Motti Zalkin, head of the Jewish History Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, uncovered the connection between the sharp rise in the number of agunot during the urbanization process of Eastern Europe in the 1860s with the spread of railroad tracks in the Pale of Settlement. As the railroad reached the small towns it enabled young husbands to leave the shtetl, creating “international agunot” as it left the station.
Prof. Bluma Goldstein of California University, who grew up as a child of an aguna, vividly describes in Enforced Marginality, the “ galeriye fun farshvundene mener – Gallery of Vanished Husbands” which appeared several times weekly for decades in the New York-based Jewish newspaper The Forward – Forverts. This feature exhibited photographs of husbands who had deserted their wives and children in the first half of the 20th century, up to 30 photos on a page, accompanied by identifying details in Yiddish. These men were almost all immigrants from the various countries of Eastern Europe who disappeared into the vast expanse of America, leaving their families alone
in a New World. WHEN REFERRING to rabbinic literature it becomes apparent that the aguna problem is a historical process. In the talmudic period, the focus of the sages grappling with the aguna problem was the husband lost at sea. Later on, the men who converted to Christianity or Islam, or who were caught up in European wars never to be heard from again, brought up the question of their wives’ status.
In the age of the Enlightenment, men left the shtetl for the big cities. In the early 20th century, young husbands boarded ships to the “goldene medina,” leaving their wives and young children to desperately and fruitlessly search for them. Each period of Jewish history added its particular manifestation of the “chained woman” to the mix.
Today it has taken the form of what can be called the height of hutzpa – a simple, shameless refusal to grant a get. This can be done without the recalcitrant husband leaving the neighborhood or his religious and social community. And people of good conscience are still grappling with this problem.
Either way you look at it, International “Aguna Day” or “InternationalAguna” Day, it highlights an international problem that is continuallygrowing beyond all proportion. Whether one regards Thursday February 25as a day of reflection and an across-the-globe call to action on theaguna problem, or as a day which marks the growing phenomenon ofinternational agunot, we Jews must admit we have a problem. The writeris a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Get-RefusalPrevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and JewishAgency; a doctoral candidate in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University andauthor of Min’ee Einayich Medim’a on prenuptial agreements for theprevention of get-refusal