Orthodox Jewish divorce is back in the news, specifically the problem of agunot or “chained women” whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce (get). At one end is the arrest of a group of Orthodox Jews who kidnapped and tortured such recalcitrants, and on the other is the declaration of an Open Orthodox advocate to “find a solution for every problem” regardless of whether it is halachically feasible or not. The wound of agunot seems as open as ever, both in America and Israel.
While I don’t profess to have a magical solution, I do have a proposal that would help ease difficult divorces for the majority of such cases in Israel. The proposal comes courtesy of my friend and esteemed scholar, Rabbi Dr. Isaac Lifshitz of Shalem College.
What is this proposal?
Simple: Let couples choose which beit din they wish to use for divorcing.
Right now, Orthodoxy is not only the monopoly religion for marriage and divorce in Israel, it is also a series of local monopolies. Jewish couples who wish to legally marry or divorce must use the services of the local Rabbi or Beit Din or one approved by them. If said Rabbi or Beit Din happens to be awful, then too bad – there are no alternatives.
Not so long ago, Tzohar led an initiative in favor of breaking these local monopolies and have local and independent Rabbis provide marriage services anywhere in the country. The idea was simple: choice and competition would favor Rabbis who did their best to make life as pleasant as possible for the couple and punish those who treated them poorly. Thus both good Rabbis and God Himself would finally start to get a good name after years of horror stories of people forced to go to His less capable representatives.
There is no reason the same cannot be done with divorce. Couples would have a greater incentive to research batei din and “vote with their feet” to those with dayanim who are not only observant and learned but also humane and empathetic. Dayanim who combine these traits would greatly benefit in stature and reputation – and those that don’t would have a financial incentive to clean up their act.
This proposal would by no means be a panacea; not all aguna cases are halachically soluble. But even this modest step would do much to help ease the problem within the framework of halacha and with no need for kidnapping or kangaroo courts with predetermined outcomes. It would allow moderation and sanity to prevail on this difficult issue.