The drama of Agunah Day

International Agunah Day is signified annually on the day of Ta’anit Esther – this year on March 13.

Couple holding a wedding rings 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Couple holding a wedding rings 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Love turned to hate, fights for freedom, religious retribution, entrapment, fear, escape, police manhunts, arrests, international intrigue, vengeance – all were part of the scene of Jewish divorce law in the year that has passed since International Agunah Day 2013.
The protagonists included women pitted against men, politicians and lawmakers, rabbis and feminists, Israeli police and the FBI – all playing their roles in the great drama of the life of an agunah – a victim of get-refusal (refusal to grant a divorce valid by Jewish law).
All the actors on the stage have real names. This is due to the fact that they are real people. A quick review will remind us of the scenes played out in just one year: In a dramatic leap to his own freedom, get-refusing prisoner Shay Cohen jumped from a second-story bathroom window in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court building on King George Street, thereby permanently imprisoning his wife in a state of limbo. A major manhunt including helicopters and informants did not help the Israel Police find him. His whereabouts are still unknown.
The man whose wife did not want him as her husband is now “WANTED” by the Israeli rabbinical courts.
Gital Dodelson burst forth on the world’s stage, baring her soul in an article published in The New York Post.
Through her explanation of how the rigid Orthodox society brought about her marriage to the great-grandson of the luminary of Jewish law Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the outside world caught a glimmer of understanding into some of the roots of potential get-refusal.
Although Dodelson appeared to be a self-sufficient Rutger’s law student, she had become a victim of get-refusal at the hands of her Orthodox husband.
Outrage poured out of the Internet, with over 12,000 signatures within 48 hours for a petition calling on the young husband to grant her the get – causing a boycott of one of the Jewish world’s major publishing houses, employers of the get-refuser’s family members. Apparently due to the media exposure and the social activism, Dodelson received her get after three years of living in limbo.
An FBI sting operation resulted in the arrest of toen rabbani (rabbinic court advocate) Rabbi Mendel Epstein and nine others. According to press reports, Rabbi Epstein and his associates had provided services to desperate agunot which included abduction of the get-refusers, roughing them up and even using electric cattle prods to coerce them to give the get. Epstein, who is known for his “Bill of Rights” where he proclaimed, “A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get,” is charged with kidnapping and beating get-refusers and faces a possible sentence to be served in US federal prison.
The Agunah Unit of the Israeli rabbinical courts discovered the whereabouts in the United States of an ultra-Orthodox get-refuser who had fled Israel under his brother’s passport, thus avoiding the court’s restraining order.
During the divorce proceedings it had become apparent that the husband was under suspicion as a pedophile.
After his escape from Israel, the rabbinical court turned to the Justice Ministry to issue an extradition request on that basis to the American authorities, since get-refusal is not an extraditable offense. In an unusual turn of events, the escapee was returned to Israel and handed over to the Israeli authorities.
In contrast, the rabbinic organization “Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership” was the first of its kind in Israel to adopt a policy of exhorting all rabbis, teachers and spiritual leaders to ensure that their followers sign a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal. By way of eliminating the phenomenon before it occurs, Beit Hillel embarked on a major campaign in print and online which publicized this solution to the agunah problem to laypeople and rabbis alike.
The commitment to signing prenuptial agreements even reached the race for chief rabbi of Israel. In his public campaign for the position, Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, in a heretofore unheard-of step, listed this particular solution for the agunah problem as one of his policies.
Politicians and lawmakers were particularly active this past year. The most amazing initiative was taken by MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who was joined by MK Shuli Moalem-Rafael (Bayit Yehudi) and succeeded in passing a law which restructured the Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges. Where this commission had formerly been composed predominantly of a men, the new law guaranteed a minimum of four female members, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni appointing a female rabbinical court advocate as one of members.
Representation of the previously ignored half of the population in the choosing of those individuals who control the citizens’ personal status, will help ameliorate the plight of the women whose futures will be determined by those judges.
Unlike a Greek tragedy which develops as a result of the “gods” playing with their mortal chess pieces while the humans cannot escape their fate, this Jewish tragedy is in the hands of the mortals themselves – the husbands and wives acting according to the rules the rabbis have or have not ordained which would allow them to form their own destiny and the destiny of the Jewish people.
The Talmud declares the development of Jewish law “is not in the heavens!” (Bava Metzia 59b), but rather was given to the rabbinic leaders to decide.
The tools are in their hands. It is time to use them to eliminate unnecessary Jewish drama – by resolving and preventing all cases of agunot.
International Agunah Day is signified annually on the day of Ta’anit Esther – this year on March 13.
The writer, 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 Jewish law; is a rabbinical court advocate; member of the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges; and is one of the authors of the Israeli prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect.”