Entering An Agunah’s Story

In a remarkably intimate atmosphere, one hundred Jerusalem Anglos heard the riveting story of one of their own. Through the cooperation of several organizations – Young Israel and the Jewish Agency, The Givat Sharett Chesed Committee (Beit Shemesh) Simcha Gemach in memory of Feigel bat Tuvia Nisan and the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center – residents and students in Jerusalem were privileged to enter the life of a woman caught in an existential struggle and listen to those who helped her.

For though we may hear lectures and read articles about the “agunah problem” as well as the problem of “get-refusal” which can affect both men and women, more so coming up to “Agunah Day” which is marked on Ta’anit Esther, we generally don’t understand the anguish of the agunah. Emotional comprehension comes when one’s life becomes intertwined with an agunah – either as a victim, a family member or as one called upon to get the get.

Dr. Tova Goldfine, is ordinarily recognized in Jerusalem as one who helps others by relieving their physical pain as a Doctor of Chiropractic. However, on Tuesday night, Feb. 19th, her complimentary traits of a bubbly personality together with her innate sensitivity, allowed a room full of strangers to comprehend her story of metaphysical pain and need. Interviewed by Susan Barth, Tova led the audience through her life’s journey as a young woman who, not knowing much about Judaism, put her faith in two men and ultimately in Faith itself. The first man, who wanted to wed her in an Orthodox marriage, eventually betrayed the sacred bond by abandoning her and their child. The second man, an Orthodox rabbi who in his wisdom was able to foresee the first’s betrayal, performed that Orthodox ceremony. However, Tova’s faith in the rabbi was justified. For in due course it became apparent that the rabbi prepared the grounds for the invalidation of the sacred bonds of marriage within the marriage ceremony itself. He had intentionally arranged a hidden legal flaw in the act of sanctification.

As the story unfolded, it was punctuated by the account of two individuals who had come to the assistance of a woman they did not know. The first, Jerusalem attorney Yehuda Tatelbaum — who happened to sit next to Tova on a bus when on his way to work as a legal intern– took upon himself to represent this agunah, negotiating the complex system of the Israeli Rabbinical Courts. The second, myself – a Rabbinical Court Advocate, to’enet rabbanit, who joined Tova’s small team, assisting until the reaching of a double resolution. For, after an eleven year-long saga, which entailed a worldwide search for the absconding husband, aliyah to Israel, as well as trans-continental rabbinic deliberations – the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem ruled that in essence there was no Jewish marriage in this case. This yearned-for but highly improbable ruling came as a blessed surprise. But even more incredible was the fact that a short while later the authorities of the State of Israel found the run-away husband who was brought to the Rabbinical Court. Within a short period of time, Tova received her official get, which sealed the case against any claims that she was still a married woman.

Dr. Goldfine’s story is not as uncommon as one would think. For the members of the average Jewish community do not like to take note of the fact that there are agunot living amongst them. It is much easier to regard these women as “single-parent” families. In fact, it would be presumed as prying if one were to inquire as to how it came about that a particular woman became the single head of her household. Political correctness such as this actually breeds aloneness in the heart of the agunah as she interprets the community’s attitude for what it commonly is – unconcern.

 Dr. Tova Goldfine’s story is nevertheless exceptional for a number of reasons. Her standing in Jewish law encapsulated both forms of iggun—the classic agunah whose husband simply disappeared with no knowledge of his whereabouts or demise, as well as the modern-day agunah who is a victim of get-refusal. In addition, concerned individuals voluntarily safeguarded her and assisted her with and without her knowledge. From the rabbi who officiated at her marriage – who actually posthumously officiated at its invalidation – through the do-gooder attorney and the supportive to’enet rabbanit, until helpers in the Israeli Rabbinical Court –  this sensitive, caring woman drew to her good people who responded in kind. However, not every woman has the same strength of character. Yet every woman needs protection. Actually, what Dr. Goldfine has taught us (see her personal letter in last week’s blog “Agunah After Agunah on Agunah Day”) is that the entire Jewish community needs protection from the blight that rips away at our social fabric—get-refusal and iggun. There are halakhic solutions available to the agunah problem, which when consensually agreed upon will afford that protection. But it takes every member of that community to put that protection in place – for the community’s own sake.

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 the International Young Israel Movement in Israel 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; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.
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