One would assume, in today’s day and age, that Orthodox Jewry would have solved a core problem which permeates all of its various communities. In numbers as never before in Jewish history, Orthodox society includes thousands of Talmud scholars; many brilliant decisors of Jewish law; hundreds of rabbinical leaders of communities; a network of rabbinical courts in the Diaspora; and even an entire powerful judicial system in the Israeli state rabbinical courts.
Notwithstanding the various distinctions of all of the above regarding the degree of openness to the post-modern world, despite sometimes even contradictory rulings within halacha and even though the diverse factions of present day Orthodox Judaism may find it difficult to sit at the same table, they are all in the same boat, and it is leaking in a furious manner.
Each group is struck by the same problem of existential proportions. Orthodox women, as well as those who are non-Orthodox, yet married in an Orthodox ceremony, as is done in Israel, find themselves agunot — chained to an unwanted marriage. Those women may be able to end their marriage through a civil divorce (outside of the State of Israel only), but are not free to remarry according to Jewish law. An Orthodox Jewish marriage ends by the death of one of the spouses or the giving of a “get” from the husband to the wife, out of his free will.
There are women whose husbands have disappeared or lie in a permanent vegetative state — not “present” to give a get. There are many more women the world over who are victims of get-refusal — the husbands are able but not willing to release their wives from a Jewish marriage. In each one of these cases, there is a mini-world from which emanates ripples of strife, pain, battle and bitterness — breaking down the circles of society of which this mini-world lies at the center. Every such couple, where the husband refuses to grant his wife a get, is in a fierce battle, where the existential angst of the wife is immeasurable, as her life is controlled by one who once loved her and her children, but has turned into the enemy. Her biological clock is ticking, she is unable to enter into a new relationship, and she is prevented from building a new healthy family unit.
Once the seed of get-refusal is planted, it blossoms beyond the proportions of an ugly divorce. The children are at best torn between the parents, or at worst, view the father as an object of resentment or even hate. The parents of the couple join the war; extended family of each enter into the feud; friends of the couple take sides — indeed, husbands and wives who were the couple’s friends even side against each other. There is an upheaval in the immediate community as details of the get-refusal are revealed; the rabbis are challenged; rancor spreads amongst those exposed to the “scandal”; and at times, the general press, once again, reports on the manner in which Orthodox women are oppressed by their religion and its laws. All this serves to weaken Jewish society, intensifying as the years go by.
For the secular, it is inconceivable that one individual can hold another hostage and limit her freedom in such a manner, through the manipulation of law — religious or otherwise. For those who adhere to Orthodox Judaism, it is incomprehensible that the rabbis — those with the power to work within Jewish law to resolve all sorts of problems — do not solve the agunah problem. Their hesitation is glaringly obvious — not using their sharp minds, textual skills, and intricate reasoning abilities to resolve this untenable situation, whereby any woman who marries in an Orthodox ceremony may unexpectedly find herself an agunah.
In the face of the manipulative conduct of the get-refuser, exploiting his singular power to bring a marriage to an end, it is the duty of the rabbis to nullify that very power. It is a religious obligation that falls on the rabbinic leadership to rescue the oppressed. It is not enough to attempt to liberate one woman at a time, individuals who may even resort to civil means. Today’s very condition of Orthodox Jewish life lending itself to easily create agunot is an explosive state of affairs that must be diffused in its entirety by its rabbinic leaders — before Jewish society becomes diffuse from within.
And yet, here we are. It’s another International Agunah Day.
International Agunha Day falls yearly on Ta’anit Esther – this year Thursday, February 25, 2021.