‘Wanted’ on International Aguna Day

Rabbinic courts have several tools at their disposal to force a recalcitrant husband to divorce his wife. So why is the problem still so rampant?

Men and women - illustrative (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Men and women - illustrative
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The State of Israel has a “wanted” list. It is a list with a Jewish twist. It is not put out by our equivalent of the FBI. Rather it is issued by the rabbinic courts – photographs included. The photographs do not show shameless bank robbers, they display shameful men who have turned their wives into agunot.
Admirably, the rabbinic courts seems to keep up with the latest technological tools available. A brief glance at their website (rbc.gov.il) informs us that a file can be opened online; opening hours and telephone numbers of rabbinic courts across the country are readily available; groundbreaking rulings are downloaded at the click of a mouse; all the relevant laws are easily accessed.
Perhaps the most eye-catching page is that listed under “Freeing Agunot.”
Just click on the moving banner “wanted” (presented in English and Hebrew) and you will reach a photographic display of the five men most wanted by the rabbinic courts. These are men who have refused to obey the court’s ruling to divorce their wives and have gone into hiding to avoid doing so. The wives are in an untenable position – without husbands yet still considered married – agunot.
They and other victims of get refusal who married in Orthodox ceremonies are in limbo, their very lives frozen in time. Nevertheless, time does march on, leaving their child-bearing years behind, together with any chance of happiness or of partaking in a stable family relationship.
It is not only technology which is embraced by the rabbinic courts. The laws of the state are those which actually empower the rabbinic courts. Civil laws grant the rabbinic courts sole jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce of Jews who are residents or citizens.
Rabbinic judges can sanction recalcitrant spouses in a variety of manners: cancellation of a driver’s license; termination of a professional license, such as that of a doctor or lawyer; limitation of a bank account; annulment of a passport.
Rabbinic judges can even imprison a man who refuses to obey their ruling to divorce his wife. Furthermore, he can be placed in solitary confinement by order of the court.
IF THE situation is so good, why is it so bad? Why does the aguna problem still exist here? The answer can be found by examining Jewish authority in the past and in the present.
In the early part of the last century, the American Jewish community also used the most “modern” means at its disposal to free agunot. The New York based Yiddish newspaper, The Forward, regularly published the “galeriye fun farshvundene mener” – gallery of vanished husbands – listing names and photos of men who had disappeared, leaving their wives as agunot.
While rabbis and the community leaders truly believed that they were doing all they could to end the suffering of agunot by searching for the wayward husbands, that level of effort no longer suffices.
Today the laity is more educated than ever. The ease of accessing information and the level of understanding of complex Jewish laws is constantly on the rise. Mobility between communities has never been easier, thus any individual can distance himself from a rabbi he doesn’t like or retreat from community life altogether. Certainly in the Diaspora and even here, the more sophisticated or stubborn an individual, the more difficult for the rabbi to exert any authority. This engenders a fear among rabbis of losing believers if they exert authority.
Additionally, the factor which weighs most heavily on the rabbinic establishment is the possibility of exerting too much pressure, which would produce a coerced get. That get is invalid, bringing about dire consequences.
A woman remarrying on the basis of a coerced get would be committing adultery, as she is still a married woman. What is more tragic is that children born of the second union would not be able to marry freely within the Jewish community.
While the rabbinic courts are to be commended for keeping up with the latest methods on their website, that technology is no more than a modern version of The Forward. Nothing has changed. A husband still has the power to refuse to give his wife a get.
What remains to be done is to return to Jewish law to resolve the problem. The rabbis would do well to heed the declaration of Rabbi Shimon Ben Tzemach of Algiers (1361-1444) who, when grappling with a difficult case of get refusal and fearful of the consequences of a coerced get, said (Tashbetz II, 8): “We are not collectors of reeds in the lake. As for issues which are dependent on reasoning, the judge has naught but what his eyes can see.”
He meant that the rabbinic judges of each generation must resolve the aguna problem from within the development of Jewish law. It is incumbent upon the rabbis not to leave the problem frozen in time. Today’s rabbinic judges must shoulder the responsibility to actually neutralize the power of the recalcitrant husband.
There are processes within Jewish law which provide for rabbis to abrogate the power of the husband to turn his wife into an aguna. One example which has been mandated by the Rabbinical Council of America is the signing of prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get refusal. Once that particular solution has been implemented by rabbis here, the rabbinic courts will be able to do away with the “wanted” list as they will have truly implemented the declaration displayed on their site: “They are to judge the people with equitable justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
International Agunah Day is marked yearly on the Fast of Esther, Thursday this year.
The writer has a PhD from Bar-Ilan University, is a rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and the Jewish Agency, and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get refusal.