I met my husband in Safed, in September 2005. I was in the process of applying for aliyah at the time, and he had already become an Israeli citizen three years prior. We knew we were going to make our lives in Israel; there was no doubt in either of our minds. There was very little left for us in New Jersey, where we’re both from, except our families. But the influence of family is strong, so it was ultimately decided that we would go back to America, get married there, and then hightail it back to the Holy Land as fast as El Al could carry us.
Two weeks before our official wedding date, my father brought my soon-to-be-husband and I to a little municipal office where he signed a document confirming we were both single, and then we, the couple, signed our marriage license. Mazal tov. We were legally married. Of course, all that meant was we were now in possession of a piece of paper we would need to file away along with our birth certificates, social security cards and passports, and our marital status was unchanged in everyone’s eyes, save for the Township of Lakewood’s Office of Vital Records.
This is how you get married in America. Both civilly and halachically. And Israel would do well to adopt a similar system. Leaving aside how civil marriage can be beneficial for all the couples who would otherwise be forced to participate in religious rituals they are not interested in, and the mountains of extra red tape such a ceremony entails, civil marriage can also be helpful for couples who do wish to get married in a traditional Orthodox ceremony. Or, more accurately, it could be helpful for couples who wish to divorce in a traditional Orthodox ceremony.
As it stands now, the get (religious divorce document) can only be given by a husband to his wife. A woman cannot divorce her husband, only the man can divorce his wife. With this imbalance of power in men’s favor, many men use the get as leverage to demand the custody arrangements they desire, or to extort their wives for money or property. And this untenable situation is exacerbated by rabbis and lawyers who actually encourage their clients to withhold giving a get to their wives if they are unhappy with any aspects of the agreements that are drawn up during legal proceedings.
In addition, although it doesn’t happen as frequently, a woman can refuse to accept a get from her husband, thereby causing him to be chained to her, until and unless her demands are met. (There are more halachic loopholes for a man in this situation than there are for women, so the imbalance of power is still largely in favor of men.) But the bottom line is, in the current state of affairs, Torah and Jewish law can and do get misused often for the sake of control, abuse, and material gain. And for anyone who believes in the truth and divinity of Torah and/or upholding the tenets of human rights and dignity, this situation should not be allowed to continue for even a second more. It should not have been allowed to continue to the point we are at now! But here we are…
However, if Israel chose to adopt a system in which a couple must have a civil union completely dissociated with their religious union (if they choose to have one), perhaps it could allay the rampant problem of agunot (chained wives). Imagine if there was a law – both a civil law and a halachic ruling – stating that a couple who wishes to terminate their marriage would be unable to begin the legal proceedings – no custody or visitation rulings, no division of property, and no civil divorce – until a religious divorce was issued.
In creating such a system, there would be no motivation for withholding a get (other than vindictiveness, of course). No monetary or material gains could be achieved, no custody rulings could be influenced. Once the religious writ of divorce is issued, the legal aspects can be addressed, and the man and woman can be on equal footing in the eyes of the law. And it would all take place well within the boundaries of normative halacha, as there would be no changes to the religious documents or ceremonies involved with marriage and divorce.
I understand that this suggestion is by no means perfect, and I expect to see comments expounding on what issues might arise in the practical application of this system. But just having this discussion, and bringing to the forefront the issue of agunot and misusing halacha as a way to disenfranchise another person is vital to the existence and continuity of the Jewish people.