In preparing to marry off two of my children in the near future I am busy with caterers, florists, orchestras, invitations, machatunim and much more. In addition to preparing for the weddings and hoping that the kids get hitched without a hitch, I am praying, more importantly, that their marriages are successful. I hope that my wife Sara, of blessed memory, and I have, over the years, modeled for our children a respectful, happy and loving relationship, and that these two new couples will create their own bayit ne’eman be-Yisrael (faithful house in Israel), built on Jewish values, commitment, love, cooperation, and respect. I have a lot of confidence in my daughter Tova and her chatan Ted, and in my son Sam and his kallah Sari, but…
There is one element in the premarital planning that was not part of our preparations 34 years ago, one I will insist upon — the signing of a halakhic prenup. And I will insist on this despite having every confidence that my children are decent, ethical young adults marrying other decent and ethical young adults. I will insist on this despite every confidence that should, God forbid, they divorce, these young people would not exploit the halakhic system and use a get as a tool for manipulation, blackmail or abuse. The halakhic prenup designates the bet din that will oversee the divorce process and, more importantly, creates the incentive for all parties to cooperate with the get process.
Thirty-four years ago the halakhic prenup did not exist and over those years hundreds of women and men suffered. Unable to remarry because of their commitment to Jewish law and because, in the United States, the Jewish community and rabbinic tribunals do not have the legal authority to enforce cooperation, those with recalcitrant spouses who refused to participate in granting a get were chained to their lives in a halachic purgatory, suffering emotionally, personally, economically, and religiously. I will insist that my children sign a halakhic prenup for their own protection and, equally, for the protection of their wonderful spouses that are becoming part of our family. Maybe one of them will benefit from its protection; maybe, should they divorce, the process will go appropriately. Or maybe because it has become increasingly accepted and expected for couples to sign these prenups, one of their friends or cousins or neighbors will benefit from their own.
During my years in the rabbinate, I was privileged to be able to support, advocate, and help a handful of agunot. I witnessed, first hand, their suffering and the trauma they and their children endured. I listened to their frustrations and anger, and tried, with the tools available, to be helpful. I will never forget hearing about an agunah whose children couldn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah or to school at the beginning of the year because the she had no money for shoes. In a moment of exasperation (tainted with a bit of sacrilege I asked why this woman didn’t just move on with her life, forget about the get, marry again, and be done with it. Her friend told me that when she asked this woman the same question, the woman answered, “My husband took everything from me: my house, my money, my ability to remarry, my sense of security, my happiness, my future. I will not allow him to take from me the one thing that I have left, the one thing that gives me the strength to get through the day: my faith!”
Those of us who believe in the halakhic system are committed to the process, rules and boundaries of Jewish law, are frustrated by our impotence to resolve some of the most vexing cases of human suffering. We know that no matter how much we will it to be so, not every proposed solution is a kosher resolution. But lamentations are the stuff of Tisha B’Av. We must act to the best of our abilities. Almost all future cases of agunot are preventable with the halakhic prenup.
Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, Director of the Beth Din of America maintains that “we have seen, over and over again, that the existence of a halachic prenup dramatically changes the dynamics of contentious divorce cases and virtually eliminates the risk that the get will be improperly used as a tool for leverage or extortion.” Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), under the halachic guidance of Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at RIETS, reports that in well over 1,000 contentious Jewish divorce cases with which his organization has been involved, “we have never seen a case of get-refusal in which the halachic prenup did not work. In numerous divorce cases in which the husband began to posture that he would refuse to issue a get, the halachic prenup secured the issuance of a timely and unconditional get.”
This is one reason why today I am proud to be the executive vice president of the RCA, an organization of rabbis which recently adopted a resolution that states that its member rabbis must use a rabbinically-sanctioned prenuptial agreement, whether it is the RCA’s or another acceptable one, at every wedding at which he officiates. Since it was drafted in 1993 by Rabbi Mordechai Willig and supported by many leading rabbinic authorities, the RCA has consistently advocated for its use. Most RCA members actively encouraged couples to sign one before their weddings; many required it. Nevertheless, it wasn’t required of our rabbis, for a number of reasons, to insist upon it. Now it is. Now, many more couples will be protected and many more cases of igun will be prevented. But it is not enough for rabbis alone to require its use. Parents must insist that their children sign halakhic prenups before they walk them to the chuppah and friends must insist that that friends sign halakhic prenups before they dance at their weddings. Despite the rising divorce rate, no one expects their own marriage or their children’s’ marriages to end in divorce, and no one expects that they or a loved one will become an agunah. But it happens. Together we can prevent needless pain, suffering, and abuse.
Thirty-four years ago, there was no halakhic prenup for Sara and me to sign. In the near future, Tova and Ted, and Sam and Sari, won’t start married life without one. I’ll insist on it as their father…and as a proud RCA member…because I love them and want to spare them and their friends and cousins and many others unnecessary tears, suffering, loneliness, and tests of faith.
The text of the RCA resolution can be found here.