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Agunah Day: 3 times public outrage rescued chained women

These stories prove the Rabbinate can be pressured into reversing rulings that trap women in marriages long over. Now we know what we have to do
Recent recipient of a get (religious divorce), Shira Isakov, who was nearly murdered by her husband, and then refused a get, before the public's outrage. (screenshot, channel 13)
Recent recipient of a get (religious divorce), Shira Isakov, who was nearly murdered by her husband, and then refused a get, before the public's outrage. (screenshot, channel 13)

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me. […] When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, succeeds in averting genocide for the Jewish people, but there is one person she cannot save: herself. Our tragic heroine remains trapped in an unwanted marriage for the rest of her days. The Fast of Esther, which falls the day before Purim, is therefore commemorated as Agunah Day. An agunah (plural: agunot) is a woman held in marital captivity by a husband who refuses to release her with a religious writ of manumission, known as a get.

To those of us fighting for agunot, Esther’s choice in calling for a public fast before she stood up to state power is not incidental. It is strikingly strategic and has become more instructive than ever. Like Esther, we see today that women’s struggle for justice directly hinges on communal solidarity. Three recent agunah cases demonstrate how critical a role that public support plays.

The first case is the matter of Shira Isakov (her real name), whose husband almost hacked her to death, literally, and would have succeeded but for her screams and the kindness of neighbors. After the murder attempt, Israeli doctors and dentists rallied to reconstruct Shira’s body and mouth. Shira sued for her release, a get, in rabbinic court. Her husband refused to free her. A media uproar ensued and the public erupted in fury. In response, the rabbinic court scrambled to Shira’s aid, making a great show of flexing its muscles to secure a get for Shira and inculpability for itself in just a matter of days.

The second case is the matter of Sarah (not her real name). I represented Sarah in one of the first cases I brought against recalcitrant husbands for damages for get refusal. We won. In 2004, Judge Menahem HaCohen of the Jerusalem Family Court awarded Sarah significant damages for the 11 years that her husband had refused to release her from marital captivity. She collected the award, but not her freedom. Out of the hundreds of women who have employed this legal strategy, Sarah is the only one for whom the damage suit did not yield a get. To this very day, Sarah’s husband stands firm in his refusal to release her.

Recently, Sarah again approached the state rabbinic courts for help — it has been 30 years (!) since she first requested a get. Instead of insisting that her husband release her, the court ordered Sarah to pay her husband all the money she had collected as a result of the family court ruling, plus interest and adjustments for cost of living. Sarah’s husband hadn’t even asked for the money back; he still wants reconciliation, shalom bayit. Again, a media firestorm was operative in changing the rabbinic court’s tune. Days after the story hit the press, the High Rabbinic Court dropped its demand for Sarah to return the damage award and, for the first time in 30 years, ordered the husband to give the get or face sanctions.

The third case concerns an Ethiopian couple who completed their get ceremony in the rabbinic court, yet the rabbinic court refused to issue them a legal certificate of divorce afterward. In this case, the problem was not the husband’s unwillingness to release his wife. Rather, the rabbinic court itself decided, after the fact, to open an investigation into their Jewish status and was withholding the divorce certificate until they re-proved their Jewishness. There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and the only way to legally end a marriage is via a divorce certificate issued by the state religious courts. Thus, despite the fact that the rabbinic court had already declared the woman religiously divorced during the get ceremony, they were still married, according to Israeli law. As a result, she could not separate her legal status from her husband, receive single-parent benefits, remarry, and more.

For months, the rabbinic court refused to budge. Exasperated, the couple took their story to the Kan broadcasting agency, who televised their ordeal. An outraged public made their story go viral and the following day, the rabbinic court released their divorce certificate. A similar incident occurred last summer with a client of ours, a woman from the former Soviet Union. In that case, a mere two weeks after my organization, the Center for Women’s Justice, filed a Supreme Court petition on her behalf and publicized her story in the press, the rabbinic court decided to release the divorce certificate they had been withholding for two years.

While I can certainly be cynical about the fact that the rabbinic court has outsourced its conscience to the public, these recent cases actually give me hope. Gone is the pretense that the powerful will correct themselves as long as we wait patiently and unobtrusively. No. Our salvation will come from us, our action, and our solidarity. This is the lesson of Agunah Day and the Fast of Esther, and this is what Esther knew when she rallied all of the Jews of Shushan on her behalf before she confronted power. This is what we know when we continue to engage the public as our partners for women’s justice.

The Black feminist poet June Jordan proclaimed, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Today, on Agunah Day, let’s be our own salvation.

Show your solidarity and help agunot take back their power by supporting CWJ’s Agunah Day campaign here. All donations made on Agunah Day itself will be generously matched by the Radow Family Foundation.

The above was co-authored by Rachel Stomel.

About the Author
Dr. Susan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center for Women's Justice, an NGO leading the battle to advance the civil and religious liberties of Israeli women when compromised by state institutions..
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