Freeing Agunot by Annulling Marriages: Publicize the Rationale for the Ruling!
On June 5th, The Times of Israel reported that a private rabbinical court headed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber annulled the marriage of a woman, Mrs. Tzviya Gorodetsky, who was an agunah for 23 years. One of the primary arguments that Rabbi Sperber’s Bet Din employed to free Mrs. Gorodetsky was that the abusive conditions of the marriage were such that no one would knowingly have agreed to get married and, therefore, the marriage was made under false pretenses and should be annulled. (There were other grounds, as well.) If this halachic argument was accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, then it would likely solve most if not all agunah cases, but for reasons beyond the scope of this article, it is not considered an acceptable halakhic argument by the Chief Rabbinate.
On June 18th, The Times of Israel reported that the Haifa Rabbinical Court voided the marriage of Oded Guez, a well-known Get refuser, to his wife, thereby freeing her after being an agunah for more than four years. When the ruling of the Haifa Rabbinical Court was made known to the public, some suggested that the Beit Din of Rabbi Sperber paved the way for this rabbinic court to make a similar ruling. Additionally, the court was initially criticized for not publicizing the legal mechanism used to free Ms. Guez.
It was eventually reported that the Haifa Rabbinical Court found that one of the witnesses to the Guez wedding was found to have been an invalid witness since at that time he was a public Shabbat desecrator and was someone who was known to have engaged in forbidden sexual relationships. Two reasons were reported as to why the members of the Beit Din may have not initially publicized the reason for annulling the Guez marriage. First, they may have been concerned that if they would publicize the reasons for their ruling then other rabbis might cast doubt on the ruling if the latter felt that the reasons weren’t compelling and they might even announce that Ms. Guez is still a married woman. Secondly, the members of the Beit Din may have not wanted to publicly spread “lashon hara” that the witness was a public Shabbat desecrator and someone to have been known to have engaged in forbidden sexual relationships.
I can understand the hesitancy of the Haifa Rabbinical Court to disclose the reasons for its ruling. After all, the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Dei’ah, 242:10) cites an opinion that a Sage may not permit something questionable that will appear to the masses that he has permitted something forbidden. As such, we are halakhically concerned about publicizing a halacha that could be misconstrued. I can also understand that the members Beit Din may not want to spread gossip about a particular individual, i.e., one of the witnesses to the Guez marriage ceremony. However, I am pleased that the reasons for this ruling were disclosed and made public. The plight of the agunah is one of the most challenging and tragic issues that our halakhic community must face and in response to this challenge, many suggestions have been proposed, some of which have been accepted by mainstream Orthodox rabbinic authorities and some of which have not.
Failure for a Beit Din to disclose the reasons for annulling a marriage can create confusion, like it did in this case, that the Haifa Beit Din may have simply been following in the footsteps of Rabbi Sperber’s Beit Din, when in reality, no evidence suggests that to be true. Even if a Beit Din might be criticized, it is important for it to provide a rationale for its ruling so that other Batei Din can learn from it and perhaps broaden their perspectives as to the options that they have to free agunot from their tragic plight.