There is not a single community within Orthodoxy, from ultra to modern, that has not come face-to-face with the manipulative, vindictive ugliness that is a get-denier—a man who refuses to issue his estranged wife a religious divorce document, thus rendering her “chained” to their marriage.
For the uninitiated, here is a quick rundown of the issue: According to Jewish law, only a man can dissolve a marriage. A woman cannot choose to divorce her husband. Once a man decides to give his wife a get—a religious divorce document—she must accept the get in her hands to make the divorce valid. She can technically refuse to accept the get, thus rendering her husband stuck in their marriage, as well. However, because Jewish men were traditionally allowed to marry more than one wife, and there are even some Jewish communities today in which polygyny is acceptable, there is leeway for a man stuck in a marriage to remarry, despite his recalcitrant wife. Sadly, there is no such leeway for women.
The idea of a woman being allowed to refuse a divorce from her husband, in a society in which a woman was not allowed to own land, and would generally be unable to provide for herself if she was not under a man’s protection, was positively progressive for the time these laws were established. They protected women, and ensured they could not be thrown out of their husbands’ homes, penniless and alone, at the whim of an antagonistic husband.
Today, because the status of women in society has evolved to allow women to work, and be the sole proprietor of a household, and enjoy the same general rights and privileges as men, some men use their halachically-sanctioned upper hand to extort their estranged wives. They demand large sums of money, custody of their children, etc., in exchange for the woman’s “freedom.” Often, the rabbinical courts encourage the woman to comply with her hopefully-soon-to-be-ex-husband’s wishes.
This is not a new problem. Already in the late 19th century, the leaders of the religious communities in France and Turkey recognized the imbalance of power in an unhappy marriage, and sought to fix it. Of course, we cannot simply throw away our laws and traditions, however outdated they may seem, so they had to look for loopholes.
In the Tractate Kiddushin, there is discussion of a “t’nai b’kiddushin” or a “conditional marriage.” Written into the marriage contract is a condition that stipulates that the couple is married (i.e. their kiddushin is valid) unless the man neglects to fulfill certain established conditions. To prevent women from becoming trapped in an unwanted marriage, it became common practice among the communities in France and Turkey to issue these conditional marriage contracts stating that if the husband neglects to gives his wife a get, in the event that she asks for one, their marriage is simply nullified, thus avoiding the get altogether.
This is not a modern idea. This is not a break from tradition. It has ancient sources, it is an established practice, and it is brilliant! To me, this is a very clear example of God handing us the antidote before we drink the poison. We don’t have to go further than our very own holy texts to find a solution to this odious, distressing, and unfortunately rampant problem. All we have to do is pop the top off, and drink the antidote. And yet, it’s been over a hundred years since this practice was introduced, and we still have agunot! What is taking so long?! Are we really so stubborn that we would rather choke on our own vile concoction of abuse and manipulation than accept a tried and true cure?