As we move from the Purim season to Passover, I want to tell you a different Purim story.
Let’s call her Esther. Instead of being trapped in the Persian palace, she has been locked into a marriage because her husband has refused to grant her a get, a Jewish writ of divorce that can only be granted by the husband). This Esther, a Frenchwoman with five children, waited four years to free herself from her recalcitrant husband, making her an agunah, or “chained woman.” With no husband or child support to provide for her family, she appealed to the Israeli Rabbinate to resolve the injustice. After extorting her out of her lawful claims to financial assistance and custody rights, the husband agreed to hand over the get in court, a process that risks being interrupted by a sudden change of heart by the husband. In this case, it was the presiding judges who refused to recognize the divorce — without any allusion to halakhic reasoning or precedent — because it was Rosh Chodesh.
Why? Apathy. Abuse of Power. Inhumanity.
Only after a tremendous outpouring of public backlash were we able to convince the court to approve the get. This is but one of the horror stories that I heard during a special session of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality I convened in honor of International Agunah Day, marked yearly during the Fast of Esther. During the hearing, a legal representative of one agunah spoke about how they had worked for years to obtain a get, only to be turned away by a rabbinical court in Tel Aviv on the grounds that the court does not recognize divorces past 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
A former agunah spoke as well, recounting the 11 years she waited before receiving her get, humiliated by rabbinical court judges, who took 4.5 years to even declare that the woman’s husband had to provide the divorce. MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), my colleague and former director of Mavoi Satum, an agunah advocacy organization, told of a case in which a father raped his daughter and the court remained reluctant to use the full power of economic sanctions, imprisonment and public pressure to obtain a get for the mother.
One telling example of the Israeli government’s indifference to this issue is that despite receiving multiple requests to do so, the Religious Services Ministry failed to delegate a representative to the Committee’s special session. Instead, Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, the Rabbinical Courts administrator, was entrusted with representing both the Rabbinical Courts and the ministry. Unaware of most of the cases cited at the meeting, Rabbi Yaakobi unloaded all responsibility for these incidents on the Rabbinate’s heavy workload and questionable “budget shortfalls.”
I am still waiting for an answer as to how a heavy workload and budget shortfall might excuse the humiliation of victims, total inaction and a deplorable disregard for the dignity of these women.
Not to worry, Rabbi Yaakobi is looking into it.
But the severity of the problem — outside estimates of the number of agunot within Israel reach 10,000 — calls for nothing short of a bold attempt to craft cutting-edge halakhic solutions. In contrast to Rabbi Yaakobi, who argued that no innovative halakhic solution can or will be agreed upon under the current Rabbinate, I would argue, as I have said many times before, that “Halakhah” comes from the word for “going.” Instead of taking us forward into the future, the Rabbinate’s halakhah is sending us back into antiquity.
In fact, we need not look any further than the original Esther to see a model for halakhah evolving in response to modernity and political reality.
It is a commonly overlooked fact that the Purim story happened not on Purim itself, but on Passover. Indeed, it is on the 13th day of the month of Nissan, a day before the first night of Passover that Haman seals his decree to exterminate the Jews of the Persian Empire. Rather than carry on with Passover ritual, Mordechai and Esther upend the Bible’s favorite holiday. Esther institutes a three-day fast and Mordechai takes to the streets dressed in ash and sackcloth, traditional Jewish mourning garb, in order to prevent the realization of Haman’s evil decree.
Passover, the holiday on which we celebrate divine providence and human freedom, becomes a day on which Mordechai and Esther decry their impending doom and the absence of divine justice. Here, the megillah stresses a critical point with regard to the evolution of Halakhah: When the life and liberty of Jews are threatened, the appropriate Jewish response is to stop it at all costs. That is not to say that the response cannot stem from a halakhic context or operate within a halakhic framework. Fasting, sackcloth and ash are distinctively Jewish practices that were appropriated by Mordechai and Esther in order to bring political justice into a chaotic world. That day, as we sat in the special session, observing the very fast instituted in order to liberate the Jewish people from helplessness, I could not help but hear the same heavenly call for change.
I would like to invite my allies in this struggle from across the religious spectrum to open their hearts and minds and band together. Prenuptial agreements, retroactive annulments, and excommunication are all halakhic methods with sufficient precedent in Jewish history to merit at least the slightest interest of the Rabbinate. According to Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Agunah problem will likely disappear in the United States within the next 10 years due to widespread adoption of prenuptial agreements. When Israeli Judaism is hijacked by those who pass up what works for what has always been done, Halakhah becomes an idol that demands the sacrifice of thousands of families on the altar of obstinacy.
In my time as member of Knesset, I have striven to restore Halakhah to the emblem of progress and pragmatism it once was, with a number of legislative reforms. In 2013, I authored a law that mandates four female seats on the 11 member committee for the appointment of rabbinic court justices, in hopes that more moderate female members will advocate for more moderate, sensitive and effective judges. In the last few months, I secured a law that annuls the divorcing couple’s race for jurisdiction between rabbinic and civil courts, preventing recalcitrant husbands beating their wives to the rabbinic courts in order to extort their wives, and exploit Halakhah.
As I looked to Mordechai and Esther, two of the Jewish People’s most talented politicians, for inspiration this Purim, I noted that the complexity and dynamics of the Agunah problem demand more ingenuity, more cooperation and more courage from all parties involved. It is unacceptable that the Jewish state remain incompetent and aloof from a global campaign for the realization of basic Jewish values. In the coming month, as we carry the lessons of Esther with us into the upcoming Passover holiday, let us remember that not every member of the Jewish People will end this year’s Seder free.