The ties that bind

As a community we must castigate, condemn and pursue anyone who uses the contemptible tool of refusing to grant a divorce.

A FORMER ‘chained’ woman (left) stands in front of a rabbinic court with her lawyer after winning her case. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A FORMER ‘chained’ woman (left) stands in front of a rabbinic court with her lawyer after winning her case.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dafna’s husband has married a second wife and set up a new family with her, but he refuses to divorce his first wife.
Nurit’s husband insists that he wants shalom bayit (a peaceful reconciliation), and says the emotional and financial abuse to which he subjected her throughout their marriage is insufficient grounds for compelling him to grant her a divorce.
Shira’s husband denies her a get (Jewish bill of divorce), making new demands of her at each court appearance; as long as she is unwilling to be blackmailed by him she cannot walk free.
Tamar has been refused her divorce for 17 years and her husband is convinced that at any moment now she will “come to her senses” and decide to return to the marriage. Until she does, he is keeping her close by chaining her to a marriage that only exists on paper.
Four women, each from a different background and with a different story, share one fate – they are agunot (“chained women”).
The problem of chained women and recalcitrant husbands has existed for generations and involves a cynical and contemptible misuse of Halacha (Jewish religious law) which has left thousands of women imprisoned by their husbands and made it one of the most pressing social problems in the Jewish world. Although the traditional approach was to try to ease the plight of agunot and free them from their chains, in many cases even this has did not release the women from the clutches of their marriage. Over the centuries, the lives of hundreds of thousands of women remained frozen in time.
In the traditional world, women became agunot as the result of tragedies: men who left home for long periods in order to make a living or who went to war and did not return. However, in today’s technological age, there are only a handful of cases in which the husband disappears without a trace. In most cases, husbands can be traced by private investigators, international connections, social media and the very nature of the global village in which we all reside. However, even when they are tracked down, the husbands often insist on keeping their wives chained to the marriage, refusing to let them move on to live independent lives.
THIS IS the 21st-century version of chaining, in which a woman or a man is chained to a nonexistent marriage that prevents them from remarrying.
Throughout history there have been famous cases of rulings that were given to ease the plight of chained women. For example, agunot from World War II, the Yom Kippur War, the Eilat navy destroyer, the Dakar submarine and the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. All of these women were released on the basis of reasonable evidence that the husband was no longer alive, while grasping at any existing halachic lead. These dramatic and out-of-the-ordinary events were afforded an efficient, uncompromising systematic treatment until a solution was found.
But what about the thousands of women who are deliberately trapped by their husbands, who are unknown to the public? How can they be helped?
The official position of the State of Israel is that a man who refuses to grant a divorce can be put on trial for recalcitrance. Dayanim (religious court judges) are even given the means of imposing sanctions on these husbands. These pressure tactics, based on halachic rulings from the 12th century, include social ostracism. These are very important tools for pressuring husbands – but they are rarely used. In many cases, women have to wait years until a rabbinical court issues a chiyyuv get (a compulsory order mandating the husband to grant the divorce) after which the sanctions permitted by law may be put into effect.
Until a comprehensive halachic solution is found for the plight of the chained women, we will stand on guard on their behalf. As a community we must castigate, condemn and pursue anyone who uses the contemptible tool of refusing to grant a divorce. We must support the chained women and place public pressure on the recalcitrant husbands, unceasingly continuing the search for halachic solutions to release the agunot. We have a moral duty to ensure that Dafna, Nurit, Shira and Tamar – as well as the thousands of other women who find themselves in the same plight – will gain their freedom and be able to embark on a new chapter in their lives.
The writer is the director of Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center for Agunot and Mesuravot Get, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions.