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How women perpetuate the issue of agunot

By fighting the recalcitrant husbands rather than the rigid rabbis, women help trap themselves

Yet again I find myself reading a highly publicized article about a poor suffering woman who is left an as aguna (a chained woman) by her cruel ex-husband. He will not release her from their marriage so that she can live her life, find love, re-marry and have (more) children. Other women support her and plea on her behalf to the cruel husband, to the rabbis sitting in the Rabbinate, to anyone who could help alleviate this unbearable situation. However, not once have I seen any of these other women, many of whom are educated, intelligent, professional, independent women of the world, ever make a real stand to empower the aguna and, indeed, empower all women including themselves.

I know of at least one organization entirely dedicated to assisting agunot. It’s run by exceptionally talented women who know how to raise funds, rally support and organize events on a grand scale. The whole set-up is an amazing feat of organizational expertise to raise public awareness, give support to agunot in the form of legal advice, emotional support and practical help, and lobby the rabbis to change the system. It was at one of their events a few years ago that I suddenly thought, here we are raising all this money and awareness to fight against our eminent Rabbis who we are supposed to admire and respect. It didn’t make any sense.

There are people dying of cancer and other horrific diseases for which vast sums are needed towards research, treatment, care and support. There are orphaned children, people with disabilities, people displaced, injured, and starving following natural disasters or wars raged by maniac dictators. There are people desperate for a hand up with sanitation, nutrition, and education that could improve the lives of their families and communities for years into the future. Yet we waste hours of valuable mitzva time and squander donations that could be used towards real problems over which we have no control, rather than solving a problem that our own learned leaders could make disappear with one compassionate decision, if only they had the inclination to do so. I find the immorality of that almost criminal.

If, at this point, anyone wants to say that the rabbis are bound by Jewish law, I would remind you of the cases where the rabbis have been creative. Not just for agunot but in other halachic situations as well, a compassionate rabbi can usually find a way around the letter of the law. I heard once how they ‘discovered’ that one of the witnesses at the original wedding didn’t keep Shabbat and so they could declare that marriage had never actually been legitimate. Never mind that this decision effectively annulled thousands of Jewish weddings all over the world, it was a creative and humane ruling. Other rabbis have resorted to methods of undue pressure. If they have the power to withhold happiness from the woman then they also have the power to impose unhappiness on the man until he agrees to be reasonable.

There have been many changes within Orthodox Judaism over the years to reflect the fact that women are not the property of their husbands and have their own lives outside the kitchen. Whilst many of the rituals linger, it is accepted in all but the most ultra-orthodox communities that women and men have equal rights over life choices. Except that in this one situation women are prepared to agree that they are in fact the property of their husband until he says otherwise. Unbelievable as it sounds, we collude in this arrangement by the very fact of pleading with the rabbis to find a solution.

If we are not mere chattels, why do we even need a get? Forget the get is what I say. Refuse to give it any power over us by denying its legitimacy. If you are in the sad situation of dissolving your marriage, go to the rabbinate and give your husband his get whilst ‘taking’ your own, even if this has to be a unilateral act. And then move on with your life. If enough women do this we will have change.

The biggest issue, as far as I can see, would be children who are classified in the rabbinate as mamzerim (illegitimate). As things stand, this bans the child from a forbidden marriage from marrying within the Orthodox world. Too many instances of this system where the children suffer because of the ‘sins’ of the parents (and we are not talking about murder or theft here) would not be tolerated for long – unless of course we choose to tolerate it by accepting it.

And even in this area the line can be fudged in the name of compassion:  “Where incest or adultery takes place among Gentiles, and the offspring embraces Judaism, the flaw in his descent is ignored. He is not deemed a mamzer (Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, 4, 21). ” [from JewishEncyclopedia.com] It could easily be argued that the woman ‘took’ her get and is therefore legally got.

Most of the changes involving women’s participation in public and religious life over the past half century have been as a result of grassroots movements. It happened with women’s prayer services and women reading Megillat Esther for other women on Purim. The rabbis originally resisted but then they saw that it was happening anyway in private homes. Eventually the rabbis have to compromise or they understand that they will become shepherds without flocks.

If we women don’t deny the get in its present form, the men and the rabbis certainly won’t make any changes. And why should they?

About the Author
Rachel Selby was born and grew up in London and is now a single mother living in Jerusalem. She has her own blog about being a single mum in midlife.
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