Why we're marching to Knesset today

On Int'l Agunot Day, we ask why religious judges refuse to free "agunot."

jerusalem rabbinical court  248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
jerusalem rabbinical court 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
This time the question was asked by a 30-something graduate student at Harvard where I was lecturing recently on Jewish law, the plight of agunot and the inability or unwillingness of Orthodox rabbis to solve the problem of Jewish women who are trapped in unwanted, often non-existent marriages. From elementary students at Jewish day schools or after school Hebrew school programs to high-school and college students, from sisterhoods to men's clubs, all ask the same question: "Why don't the rabbis free agunot?" I've been asking myself that question during the past 28 years that I've been practicing law in Israel and specializing in cases of religious divorce. As I've watched young, attractive, dynamic women turned into angry, bitter, cynical agunot, unable to remarry because their greedy and vindictive husbands refuse to give them a get, I cannot help but wonder about the lack of activism on the part of our religious leaders. We all know about the pain and suffering of agunot. The award-winning documentary film Mekudeshet opened our eyes to this shameful distortion of Jewish law. Articles and books have been written about the subject, clearly establishing that there have always been Halachic solutions to the problem of agunot. So why don't the rabbis free agunot? ICAR, a coalition of 27 organizations committed to freeing agunot, is asking the rabbis to answer that question on International Agunot Day which will be marked on Wednesday, March 19th, the day before the Fast of Esther. The coalition members who include Orthodox women's organizations as well as Conservative, Reform and secular organizations, will be demonstrating in Jerusalem by marching from the Bet Din on King George Street to the Knesset. ICAR is also sponsoring a study day by distributing articles and other study materials to groups of men and women in community centers, synagogues and private homes. MOST IMPORTANTLY, letters have been sent to all dayanim (religious court judges), including Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger asking them to answer the following questions: 1. Why don't you use the halachic solutions that exist in order to free battered women from their violent husbands who refuse to give them a Jewish divorce or get? We all know that these women and their children's lives are at risk. 2. Why do you assist men to make exorbitant financial demands as a condition for giving their wives a get? Why do you advise and encourage women to waive their legal rights to property, child support and obligate them to pay large sums of cash to their husbands for giving a get? Frequently, these women and their children are left impoverished after the divorce. 3. For more than a decade, you have had the power and legal authority to impose civil sanctions on recalcitrant husbands including cancellation of drivers' licenses as well as incarceration. However, you rarely use this power. Why? Will the dayanim answer these questions? SEVERAL YEARS ago when I appeared on a panel with two dayanim, I asked similar questions. The answer then was "Halacha binds our hands." But we all know that's not true. Scholarly articles published in the last few decades by academicians as well as leading rabbis have shown that throughout Jewish history we have had courageous, compassionate and creative rabbis who found Halachic ways to free agunot. What's the matter with today's Orthodox rabbis? I asked that question at an international conference on Jewish law in Madrid a few years ago. The answer given by a distinguished British rabbi was that all of the leading rabbis died in the Holocaust. He stated that today's rabbis have not reached that level of scholarship and therefore are unable to be creative in finding solutions to the problem of agunot. Last week I attended a discussion on Jewish Law and Islamic Law in Jerusalem. Professor Yedidia Stern of Tel Aviv University Law School argued that Jewish Law has become "Islamicized." He explained that Jewish law was intended to develop, aided by religious scholars who would be creative in applying ancient law to resolve current Halachic problems. He quoted from the Talmud: "Not in Heaven are the answers." Islamic law, on the other hand, did not provide for the input of man for its development and therefore finds its answers only in "heaven." Sadly, Professor Stern concluded, Jewish law has become static rather than dynamic, with our Orthodox establishment refusing to accept creativity and stamping out any courageous attempts to solve the problem of agunot. Remember the last minute cancellation by Chief Rabbi Amar of the international rabbis conference on solutions to the problem of agunot which was to be held in November, 2006? So, how will the dayanim answer ICAR's questions? Ever the optimist, I'm waiting to hear the answers with bated breath and promise to let Post readers know as soon as the answers are received... The writer is a lawyer based in Jerusalem and represents the International Council of Jewish Women in ICAR.