The emancipation of Jews in Europe changed their status and lives totally. Before it, they were non-citizens, invited to live in a certain town or kingdom at the behest of the local ruler, their status prone to change overnight, by the whim of a decree. To reside in a certain place, Jews had to be members of the local Jewish community, which had the power to cancel the residential status and had an independent legal system headed by the local rabbi.
Emancipation changed all that. Jews became ordinary citizens, subject to the secular legal systems of the lands they resided in. The membership in a Jewish community became a voluntary endeavor, and the rabbi had no legal jurisdiction over the Jews in his town.
However, as with everything good, this shift included some collateral damage. According to Jewish law, a woman can only get divorced from her husband by his full consent, although in certain cases, the rabbinical court has the right to require the husband to issue a bill of divorce. The problem is that, while rabbinical courts issued such decrees, there was no way to enforce them, since membership in the community was optional.
The problem of chained wives — agunot — was most probably the worst at the beginning of the last century, at a time when many men left their wives behind in Poland and Russia to seek their fortunes in the United States. Bertha Pappenheim, the president of the Jewish Women Union of Germany, spoke of 20,000 agunot at that time.
It is important to note that historically and in rabbinical literature, the term agunah was used in a different context, for women whose husbands had disappeared and their whereabouts were unknown. The Yiddish writer Chaim Grade wrote a famous novel called “Di Agune,” describing such a case in Lithuania at the beginning of last century.
However, in our context, the husbands are very much alive and visible, they just do not want to issue a get, or a bill of divorcement, to their chained wives. Only in Israel, where personal status is decided by the religious courts, do the courts have the power to use a variety of sanctions, including imprisonment, to convince recalcitrant husbands to free their wives. In the Diaspora, the courts are almost powerless.
I announced during our convention in Berlin in 2013 that the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) would develop a multi-pronged approach to provide relief for agunot in our midst.
The first step is the law, which originally passed in Israel in 2018 as a provisional law to extend the jurisdiction of Israeli rabbinical courts to cases of agunot of non-Israelis. This idea is based on the premise that every European Jew has at least one relative in Israel and thinks that, as anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, the time may come when European Jews will have to seek refuge there. The idea that a recalcitrant husband, for example, might get stopped at the border entering or exiting Israel is a major deterrent to get refusal, and compelled many recalcitrant husbands to comply with a summons of a rabbinical court outside of Israel and free their wives. During the three years of the existence of this law, more than 80 cases of agunot were resolved. This week, the Knesset reinstated the law unanimously as a permanent law.
The second initiative was created in Amsterdam. The CER founded the special European Rabbinical Court for Agunot, under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag. This court’s authority has been recognized by the Dutch Supreme Court, empowering it to levy fines of up to 100,000 euros to compel recalcitrant husbands from all over Europe to free their wives.
The third approach has mainly been in practice in the United States, namely, the use of prenuptial agreements between the couples. The CER adopted one of the versions of the prenuptial agreements, agreeable to the halachic authorities of our time. However, because of the different legal systems in European countries, the creation of a Europe-wide halachic prenup has been a challenge.
The fourth measure is the most traditional one: using our communal structures to ban recalcitrant husbands from being admitted to communal institutions or receiving services, until they have freed their wives. The problem with this approach is that it only has teeth when the aforementioned husband is interested in using these services.
None of the above remedies for agunot is foolproof or complete, but in their totality, I believe we have the means of solving the great majority of cases in Europe, which would bring down the total number of agunot there by 80 to 90 percent.