A Goal for the New Year: Solving the Agunot Problem

Apples were dipped in honey as families reunited on Rosh Hashana, and the people of Israel reflected upon this past year and set goals for the next.   One goal that the Jewish nation must consider for this coming year is to solve the problem of agunot, “anchored” wives whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to give their wives a get, a Jewish divorce document.

I was first introduced to the concept  agunot in Tel Aviv several years ago, in the form of a young, vivacious British  lawyer who had recently left her abusive husband; he had initially demanded   40,000   pounds in exchange for a get, and her rabbis encouraged her to pay him. After she finally garnered the funds, he upped the ante; she would have had to give him sole custody of her son in order to obtain a get.

According to Torah law, a husband must give his wife a get of his own volition  in order for the couple to divorce, and  unfortunately  thousands  of men withhold this document from their wives. Anyone who is married under Jewish law, which is the only way for Jews to legally marry in Israel, requires a get in order to divorce and subsequently remarry.

There is a Halakhically viable method to prevent get –refusal, The Halakhic Prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect. This agreement, which is signed by couples prior to matrimony, provides a monetary incentive to grant a divorce and has at least a 95% success rate, according to Talmud and Jewish law expert Dr. Rachel Levmore,   who serves as the  Director of the Agunot and Get Refusal Project of the Young Israel Movement and the Jewish Agency and who has been appointed by the minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni, to serve as a member of the State Commission for the Appointment of Dayanim, Rabbinical Court Judges.  Dr. Levmore posits several approaches to understanding the Halakhic Prenuptial  agreement, which  are elucidated below.

Tikun Olam Approach. The aguna problem is one of societal injustice, and Am Yisrael must work together to ameliorate it. In signing the Halakhic Prenup, or encouraging others to sign, individuals abet tikun olam, repairing of the world. Moreover, they serve as role models for their families, friends, and communities, who will hopefully emulate their actions.

Historic Halakhic Approach.  Couples today have a historic opportunity to take part in a historical practice of engaging in the development of Halakha.  A parallel situation arose 2000 years ago when couples began signing ketubahs which specifies the partners’ obligation to each other in both marriage and in the advent of divorce. The practice of singing a ketubah slowly spread among the Jewish people until rabbis declared it a universal Jewish standard.

Personal approach. Both Dr. Levmore and Susan Weiss, Esq. the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Women’s Justice, who authored the Center for Womens’ justice pre-nuptual agreement, use an analogy involving purchasing and driving a car to explain the notion of personal security in signing the Halakhic Prenup. People don’t expect to get in an accident, yet they generally purchase car insurance and wear a seatbelt.

Signing a Halakhic  a pre-nup one is not akin to foreseeing a divorce, likewise, putting on a seat belt or buying insurance is not analogous to planning on crashing one’s car. If people believed that they were headed for a devastating crash, in either marriage or on the road, they would not get into the car, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. However, accidents happen; hence, it is prudent to take measures to minimize potential damages.

Romantic approach. The pre-nup is signed at a time when a couple is blissfully in love and each partner wants only the best for the other. This is the optimal time to set the ground rules for unforeseeable disaster.

Dr. Levmone likens signing a prenuptial agreement to saying to one’s partner  “I want to prevent you from any harm or hurt that may befall you. I even want to protect you from myself, so I won’t be able to hurt you in the future. If that isn’t a demonstration  of pure love I don’t know what is.”

She  suggests that the best time to become an advocate of the Halakhic  Prenuptial Agreement  is before beginning  a relationship, so when a potential date checks you out on Facebook, (s)he  will see notice, and, when you become engaged, “(s)he won’t take it personally” when you want to sign the agreement, rather (s)he will understand that you care about justice and are in favor of the agreement on principle, not because you don’t trust him or her.

I challenge you to join the facebook group today, to talk about the The Halakhic Prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect with your friends, colleagues, and family, to do your part in spreading this necessary norm. Hopefully next year we can look back and be proud of our work in repairing the world.

For up-to-date versions and information of the Israel prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect” (Heskem l’Kavod Hadadi), in five languages, go to http://www.youngisraelrabbis.org.il/prenup.htm

Facebook groups:

The Halakhic Prenuptial Agreement for Mutual Respect –https://www.facebook.com/groups/46452882555/

הסכם לכבוד הדדי למניעת סירוב גט https://www.facebook.com/groups/61129036926/

I would like to thank and acknowledge the following individuals, who are doing amazing work to help prevent get- refusal.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, Rabbinical Court Advocate,Director, Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel  (www.iyim.org.il) and the Jewish Agency

Susan Weiss, Esq.,Founder and Executive Director of CWJ who wrote the following: Center for Womens’ justice pre-nuptual agreement, which includes agunot cases in which a spouse becomes missing or incapacitated.

About the Author
Arielle Sullum recently completed her MSc. in Organizational Psychology at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology, wherein she researched innovation and gender. She is currently working in content-writing and PR.