The aguna conference that wasn't

The rabbis do not recognize the problem, do not speak our language, do not want to talk with us. And they have no interest in doing so.

Remember that international conference of rabbinic judges that I was insulted about ("Sages of Israel: Take modernity by the horns," UpFront, November 3)? The one I wasn't invited to? The one that was supposed to offer a breakthrough for agunot? It was called off by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar just six days before it was scheduled to take place and without enough time for some of the Diaspora rabbis to cancel their trips to Israel. He thus invoked the wrath of many rabbis, let alone us women. The big question is: Why? The only reason being given is that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected halachic authority of haredi Lithuanian Jewry did not approve of the conference and nixed it. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter (which, the discerning reader will see, somewhat overlap):
  • No Problem/No Solution: If there's no problem, there's no need for a solution. Many rabbis and thinkers - and my guess is that Rabbi Elyashiv is among them - scoff at the word "problem" when it comes to halachic issues. For them, Halacha is pristine, true, whole, even if we mortals cannot understand it. And even if we may sometimes have to live with its tragic consequences. Why have a conference to fix something that is, by their definition, an inviolable whole, even though it may (erroneously) appear to us at times to be incomprehensible, or unfair? In a similar, but more down-to-earth vein, Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinic court system, has said innumerable times, depending on the audience or date, that there are only five, 15 or perhaps 50 agunot. There's certainly no need for an international conference to solve a problem for a handful of women.
  • No Language: The rabbis have no language with which to offer us a solution. I also think that Rabbi Elyashiv, like many of the rabbinic judges in the Israeli rabbinic courts, has no language with which to solve the problem that we think exists. For them, the central legal issue surrounding Jewish divorce revolves around the free will of the husband to give the divorce or get, or not to give it. If the get is not given of a husband's free will, it's invalid. All of our suggested solutions involve an infringement on the husband's free will and cannot, in Rabbi Elyashiv's mind, be cavalierly adopted because of pressure from women's groups or international conferences. Prenups, annulments, conditional marriages all infringe on a husband's free will. Prenups, for example, apply a financial penalty on recalcitrant husbands. Annulment takes away the power of the husband over the get altogether. Conditional marriages give women power to end the marriage. For Rabbi Elyashiv it's a matter of a man's autonomy over his wife's personal status. For us, it's a matter of a woman' autonomy over her life. We don't speak the same language. No need for a conference if we can't communicate one with the other.
  • No Dialogue: We want to talk to the rabbis. But they don't want to talk with us. This the rabbis made literally clear. Even before they cancelled the conference, they refused to sit with women at the conference. They would not hear the stories of agunot, the arguments of the activists. It was to be, after all, a halachic conference and there is no place for women there. I see this refusal as more than just an expression of sexual modesty or professional ability. What the rabbis are saying is that we do not want a dialogue with empathy or modernity. What the rabbis mean by this is that the only issue before them is halachic. We may want Halacha to engage in a conversation with modernity and with its victims. But for the rabbis, this dialogue is irrelevant. No need for a conference to discuss what has been Halacha for the past 2,000 years.
  • No Interest: The rabbis gain nothing from the conference and have everything to loose from it. Ergo, no need for the conference. If Rabbi Elyashiv has vetoed the conference, for whatever reason, the rabbis cannot hold it. This would risk their standing (cultural capital) in the halachic world, as well as the shiduchim or marriage prospects for their children (social capital). And so long as we taxpayers continue to pay the salaries of the rabbinic judges without them having to answer to us, rather than to Rabbi Elyashiv, their pocketbooks (financial capital) are in no way endangered. In short, the cancellation of the conference makes prefect sense. And we have to understand this so that we can go forward. The solution to the problem of Jewish women and divorce, and there is a problem, will not come from our Israeli rabbinic judges. They do not recognize the problem. They do not speak our language. They do not want to talk with us. And they have no interest in doing so. The writer, an attorney, is executive director of the Center for Women's Justice in Jerusalem.