Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Chief Rabbi Lets Corpse of Woman Rot to Free an Aguna

Times of Israel, August 20, 2019: “Chief Rabbi Halts Woman’s Burial Until Son Grants Wife a Divorce.”

dear God in heaven.

“When all the other options were exhausted, we had to inform the burial society not to bury the mother until the son provides a kosher divorce,” [Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau]… wrote in explaining his decision. “We hope this move will soon bring about a divorce and the woman will be released.”


This is all about male power. That of the baal, the master, the word for “husband” in classical rabbinic and contemporary, modern Hebrew (though alternatives exist and some of us use them—religiously: ben zug; ish, ishi). That of the all-male rabbinic courts. That of the Chief Rabbis here.

I am, of course, as is every decent person, provisionally relieved– the baal in question has “promised” a get to his first wife, not delivered one, and his behavior leaves serious question about the lengths he will go to on behalf of his male privilege. Mom’s already in the ground; what leverage now? Why did the rabbis not extract from him a signed, witnessed, irrevocable, authorization to the rabbinic court, the beis din, to write the get on his behalf and deliver it be’shli’hut, through an agent of the court? Then all this would not be subject to “hope”; it would be a done deal but for delivery of the document. Talk about power; they can do that. Gee, I know this, and I am not even a rabbi. Hmm.

But back to my main point.

No, Rabbi Lau and the rest of you, all options were not exhausted. This and similar expressions treat rabbinic law as if these were the laws of physics, a given, you can only work with them as they are currently applied; there is no other way.

No and no.

No woman marries with the intent of becoming an aguna, a prisoner of a baal. Every single marriage that ends in iggun, in her being a prisoner, is mekah ta’ut, a marriage undertaken under false pretenses, and should be annulled, retroactively.

The woman in this case, women altogether, should do this themselves, pronounce the marriage over because it was entered into on the basis of conditions unstated to the woman at the time of the marriage which, if stated, she would never have accepted (retroactive annulment of rabbinic marriage has no implication for the “legitimacy” of offspring of the marriage).

I fully realize that Orthodox and Haredi women won’t do this, they are socialized to recognize the authority of rabbis; that is what any variant of Orthodoxy means: not belief in God but belief in and acceptance of the authority of the rabbis, dead, and above all, living. The consequences for behaving otherwise are dire and untenable: social ostracization, punishment of self, of children.

So, rabbis, living ones, need to start acting on the above.

Because refusing burial to a woman, even one who colluded with her abusive son in abusing another woman, inflicting the worst offense in Jewish understanding, abuse of a corpse, is not the only way to go. It is a disgusting way to go. Abuse of a woman to end abuse of a woman is not the way to go. Clearly, the full humanity of women is not obvious to these people.

Free women. Do that.

No abuse of women. Living or dead.

Try that, rabbis, for a refreshing change. For us all. For Torah, even. So we can all rest, and even live, in peace.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.
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