I’ve been doubting myself lately. As the executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), I have the unique opportunity to visit dozens of Jewish institutions throughout the United States every year to discuss the plight of agunot and the preventative solution of the halakhic prenuptial agreement. By and large, these are Modern Orthodox high schools and synagogues, and, at every presentation, I stress that get-refusal, as a form of domestic abuse, is never justified. This past year, we at ORA presented to nearly 4,000 students and community members.

I began doubting myself because I started wondering if we’ve already become victims of our own success. The members of the synagogues who welcome me to speak from their pulpits seemingly understand that get-refusal is never justified. They are supportive of our advocacy at ORA and my speeches from the pulpit have nearly always been very warmly received. At this point, am I preaching to the choir? In the Modern Orthodox community, we don’t justify get-refusal, period. We never excuse a recalcitrant husband for refusing to issue a get. Right??

Oh boy was I wrong!

Last week, we at ORA began publicizing an agunah case wherein the husband has refused to issue his wife a get for three years. Our initial approach at ORA is to resolve agunah cases amicably by speaking with both sides, researching the case history, and doing everything we can to ensure the timely and unconditional issuance of a get. If and when we have exhausted all attempts at an amicable resolution, we resort to applying pressure against the recalcitrant party within the confines of Jewish and civil law.

In this case, it is not we at ORA who have unilaterally determined this man to be recalcitrant. Rather, the Beth Din of America (BDA) has issued a seruv (order of contempt) against him due to his failure to appear before beit din to address the issuance of the get. Outside of Israel, the BDA’s seruv is the gold standard in determining a husband’s recalcitrance. The BDA is arguably the most reputable and trusted beit din in the world, and they set the bar for assuring a fair and unbiased process for all parties. If they issue a seruv, then that means that they, as an impartial rabbinical court, have certified the husband as recalcitrant without question. If this woman isn’t an agunah, then I’m not sure any woman in the U.S. is.

Recalcitrant husbands are enabled and empowered by their circle of supporters, who excuse, justify, and defend their refusal to issue a get. They depend on the backing of their family members and friends to remain steadfast in their obstinance. These supporters prop them up and give them the strength and defense they need to continue refusing to issue a get, often for years and years. Without their family and friends defending them, they quickly fall.

What this case showed me, in light of the numerous Facebook comments by the husband’s supporters, is that we still have a long way to go before we are all prepared to actually combat get-refusal whenever it rears its very ugly head. It’s easy for us to pay lip-service and say, “Sure, I stand with agunot!” But, when the get-refuser is your brother, or your friend, or even your son — what do you say then? Do you tell him that you entirely oppose his recalcitrance and will not support him until he gives a get? Or, do you begin to rationalize and find excuses why “this” case is different?

In this recent case, as in many others, the oft-repeated line of “defense” for the recalcitrant husband is that he is fully prepared to give the get once their civil divorce is finalized. Does that seem a reasonable enough excuse to you? Here’s why it’s not:

  1. My colleague, Keshet Starr, Esq., our Director of Advocacy and Legal Strategy at ORA, penned an incredible piece last week which went viral, responding to the argument that the get is the “only way” that a husband can level the playing the field in the civil court system. I won’t repeat her points, so please read her article if you haven’t already.
  2. As mentioned above, when a credible rabbinical court, and especially the Beth Din of America, issues a seruv against a husband, then there are no ifs, ands, or buts about his recalcitrance. Just as there is a civil court process in order to obtain a civil divorce, there is a rabbinical court process in order to obtain a get. When a husband spurns that process, he demonstrates his recalcitrance, and the beit din, in kind, issues a public statement in the form of a seruv. In the case in question, that’s what’s happened. While a seruv is reason enough to require us, as a matter of Jewish law, to pressure him (within the confines of Jewish and civil law) to give a get, I’ll add a few more points.
  3. I can’t even count the number of times a husband has “promised” to give a get at the end of the civil divorce process, only to decide that he is displeased with the civil divorce outcome and uses the get as leverage to gain what he unilaterally thinks is “fair.” That’s extortion. (What again does the wife have in such a circumstance to ensure that she gets what she thinks is “fair”? Oh, right. Nothing.) His word is as good as the blank sheet of paper which the get was never written on.
  4. In the course of a civil divorce process, when there are inevitably several attempts to negotiate and reach a settlement, the wife, in order to secure her receipt of the get, may compromise on her rights and give into a settlement agreement which she otherwise would not have signed on to. In other words, her husband is not holding a gun to her head; he’s holding a get over her head. That’s blackmail. (A recent academic study found, among divorced women in Israel, that 1/3 were subjected to threats of get-refusal in their divorce processes. That number rises to 50% when focusing on religious women.)
  5. Last, but certainly not least: get-refusal, in and of itself, is a form of domestic abuse, and we must never, ever, excuse or justify abuse. Domestic abuse is not just about black-and-blue marks; rather, it is defined by a pattern of controlling behavior. It’s about a repeated assertion of power and control from one spouse over the other. And that’s precisely what goes on in get-refusal, in the repeated refusal of one spouse (generally the husband) to participate in the get-process, thereby asserting his or her control over the life and destiny of the other. Just as in any other form of abuse, we must never provide excuses or rationales for get-refusal. By defending get-refusers, even those we love, we are not just standing by while abuse is happening: we are actively facilitating it. As this recent agunah case demonstrates, we’re still not there in our community in understanding that our stance on get-refusal must be one of absolute disapproval.

Our greatest hope and prayer at ORA is that we put ourselves out of business. Unfortunately, until we come to the point that everyone in our community recognizes that get-refusal must never be excused or justified, we still have a lot of work to do.