The 'aguna' - a statistic or a real problem?

Jewish women can't be held captive in a marriage from which they have exited emotionally.

aguna 88 (photo credit: )
aguna 88
(photo credit: )
If the most powerful component of domestic abuse is the issue of control, then the ultimate component of the control issue in Jewish marriages is get-refusal. In a case of an abusive relationship, the woman in keeping with Jewish tradition, who has finally come to the decision that she must dissolve her marriage, can become the victim of continued abuse by her husband's refusal to grant her a Jewish divorce [get]. The woman who is a victim of get-refusal is a modern-day aguna [literally, anchored]. As awareness of the aguna problem increases, confusion and questions are on the rise. As of late, the first signs of skepticism have come to light in both the American-Jewish and Israeli press. The question posed - generally by males- is: "how many agunot are there? Is it worthwhile investing resources in a problem that has not been quantified?" Attempts to offer a numerical answer to this question are doomed to fail. Skeptics will always counter with a contradictory "statistic." Women's organizations in Israel report numbers ranging from "thousands" (with no substantiation presented) to 100,000 who are or have been victims of get-refusal in Israel (Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center based on a scientific telephone survey). On the other hand, Director of the Rabbinical Courts Eliahu Ben-Dahan reports that in 2008, there were 180 cases of women who were victims of get-refusal, while there were 190 cases of men in that position. The gap between the two approaches is obvious. THE ROOT of the argument is two-fold: Firstly, each body providing statistics defines "victim of get-refusal" (as opposed to the traditional aguna whose husband has disappeared) in a different manner. Sometimes a given body will not even be clear about the definition within itself. The rabbinical courts will count the number of files that are open longer than a given period - perhaps a year or two - and in which the husband has remained recalcitrant. The courts will also include cases in which a severe ruling has been issued against the husband obligating him to grant the get. But this definition can be countered with a variety of questions, such as: What about cases that dragged on so long that the women just gave up? Those cases are closed due to inactivity and are not included in the statistical survey of active cases in a given year. And what about cases where the wife sues for a divorce, but refuses to give up her legal rights? Many times the courts would not consider her an aguna at all. The women's organizations would actually agree with these two narrow definitions of the rabbinical courts, but would broaden it to include more complicated and even subtle circumstances. The rabbinical courts can only count a case if a file has been opened. The system cannot possibly be aware and cannot be expected to be aware of a woman who has not filed for divorce. Many women who are too frightened to turn to the court for relief do not exist statistically from the court's point of view. But this type of woman may turn to women's organizations or lawyers for advice. Likewise the woman who is willing to pay any price - even forfeiting her legal rights financially and custodial rights to children - to gain her freedom through the get. That woman rightfully feels that she is a victim, even though she comes before the court in a supposed "amicable divorce" with a prepared agreement. The room for discrepancy between the attempts at statistical examinations is great. Secondly, it is not possible to actually and accurately count the numbers of agunot and victims of get-refusal no matter the definition. Many such women have lived quietly, in shame. Only recently, due to consciousness raising by both rabbis and aguna activists, have many women come to the understanding that the burden of shame is not for them to bear - but is rather solely the liability of the recalcitrant husband. SINCE THE question of numbers engenders such controversy - with each side firmly entrenched in its own stance with no possibility of convincing the other - I propose that we steer the topic onto a different but close course which bypasses the numbers issue. In other words, the focus should be on the principle and the potential for harm which may worsen from generation to generation. Many points of substance are in agreement by all sides concerned. Through discussion of these points progress can be made toward solving the aguna problem - a result desired by the rabbinical establishment, the women's organizations and the Jewish public at large. The principle is clear: It is an untenable situation that Jewish women can be held captive in a marriage from which they have exited emotionally as well as in a practical manner, but are not able to exit in a formal manner; that once married, Jewish women essentially have no right to determine their personal status; that to attain the possibility of remarriage a women can be held up for an outrageous price; and even that a given individual, the husband, is more powerful than the rabbinical court which cannot dissolve the marriage against his will. These principles should be spoken about on the foundations of the points upon which everyone agrees: Everyone agrees that there are victims of get-refusal (especially Diaspora rabbis); everyone has read rabbinical statements that the incidence of get-refusal has gone up in these last generations (see "A Message to Our Rabbinic Colleagues" of December 1999 issued by 11 Yeshiva University RIETS yeshiva heads); everyone agrees that there is great potential at this point of women leaving the faith and bringing mamzerim into the world unable to marry within the general Jewish community; everyone agrees that victims of get-refusal and agunot together with their families undergo great human and religious suffering. Therefore the outcry should be against the very possibility of such instances arising. The outrage should be against the untold suffering of the modern-day aguna. All those who relate to the aguna problem would do well to turn their focus from the question of numbers to the proposals for and implementation of solutions. If Jewish society stays fixated on the question of how many agunot there are, then indeed there will be so many that there will be no possibility of ever answering the question. The writer is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and Jewish Agency; a doctoral candidate in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.