Agunah after Agunah on Agunah Day

Take a moment from the busy, at times cynical, lives we lead and listen to one person’s story – for she wrote us all a letter:

February 2013

To whom it may concern,

My name is Dr Tova Goldfine. I currently live in Jerusalem after making Aliya from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Tamar Epstein and I are both from the same community and know many of the same people from that community.  Another very important fact is that Tamar and I were each married to a man who was “special, unique and charismatic” at least through our rose colored glasses. There were people in our common world who advised us each not to tie the knot with this “so unique” human being.

When my marriage ended, my husband refused to grant me a divorce by providing the get, the divorce document required by Jewish religious law. I was an agunah (victim of get refusal) for 11 years and Tamar has now been an agunah for over four years. Being an agunah means living in limbo, with no ability to remarry.

Tamar and I both have one daughter from our husbands. We are devoting much of our time and energy to teaching our daughters that in spite of this ambiguous law about a man having to give the women a get, the Torah is the word of God.

It had tested my emunah (faith) for the last 11 years and I am sure it is testing Tamar Epstein on a daily basis. No one ever wants to be a “single mom.” Most of us believe in the traditional family unit that has been passed down for generations. There is a mother and a father and they have children and everyone lives under one roof. Anything short of that tests our longstanding values and traditions.

This has been the hardest idea for me to own and accept. I prefer not to have to play mommy and daddy and bear all the responsibilities.

Every agunah’s story is different and each is its own interlaced series of events that shape us; whom we have become and what we will become. My personal story is now my personal victory because I didn’t give up and I surrounded myself with the right people and the support I needed. I am free and this has spoken to me in different ways; it is still speaking as I understand the nature of what a Get really means. I may not know everything it means. The one thing I do know is I can’t be really free if other women are not. If other agunahs are waiting for their husbands to decide to sign a Get, this is unjust and unfair.

Tamar Epstein has been and continues to be treated with injustice and we all need to help set her free.

 Dr Tova Goldfine

When a Jewish Orthodox marriage takes place, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel, it can be dissolved by a Jewish divorce only when the husband agrees to give the wife a get. All marriages that are arranged under the auspices of the State of Israel between two Jews are Orthodox. A third of those couples come to divorce, and the jurisdiction to arrange the divorce is assigned, by Israeli law, to the Rabbinical Courts. Rabbinical courts, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, rule in accordance with the halakha, the religious law. These same Rabbinical Courts are beholden to the acquiescence of the husband in order to arrange the get. Every divorcing couple is aware of this.

Some husbands don’t care to go through the religious procedure. Others just abandon their wives. Many demand a price for the get. And there are those who are even divorced by civil courts in the Diaspora and simply refuse to give the get.

The reader can try to figure out which of the above apply to the two brave women mentioned in the letter. But the reader will not be able to predict which friend, family member or acquaintance will find herself in the terrible position of being refused a get – as an agunah.

Dr. Tova Goldfine received her get after 11 years. (She will be telling her amazing story at the Agunah Day Event in Jerusalem at 8 PM, Tuesday Feb. 19th at Keren HaYesod 22-the Israel Center.) Tamar Epstein has still not received hers from Aharon Friedman (staff member of US Congressman Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee). How many more years will she have to wait?

How many more years is Jewish society going to mark Agunah Day on Taaanit Esther (the day of fasting, which falls on Feb 21st this year)? When will all the sectors of Orthodoxy agree that settling each case piecemeal (i.e. paying off the husbands that actually deign to talk to the rabbis or having the rabbinical hands tied in the cases where the husband simply refuses or has disappeared) is not acceptable to society as a whole? How long are we all going to wait for a systematic rabbinic solution to the agunah problem?

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of Young Israel - Israel Region and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; member of Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.
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