Zev Farber

Les Misérables and the Agunah Situation

Look down, look down; don’t look ‘em in the eye. Look down, look down; you’re here until you die.” These are the opening words of the play (and now film) Les Misérables, sung by poor and downtrodden prisoners. In the play a man named Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child.

The play opens with a debate between the two main characters, Jean Valjean and Javert, the inspector who will hunt Valjean for the rest of his days. Javert tells Valjean that his time as a prisoner is up, “and you know what that means.” “Yes,” Valjean responds, “it means I’m free.” “No,” Javert retorts, “it means you get your yellow ticket-of-leave. You are a thief.” Valjean defends himself, telling Javert of the dire circumstances he and his family were in, “we were starving,” he says. “And you will starve again,” says Javert, “unless you learn the meaning of the law.”

In Javert’s philosophy, good people are rewarded, wicked people are punished; any violation of the law is wicked. Jean Valjean has a very different perspective on the law. “I know the meaning of these 19 years,” Valjean retorts, “a slave of the law.” In Jean Valjean’s understanding, context is everything. He is not merely a thief; taken in context, his theft of bread was a moral act–a reasonable exception to the law.

There are two scenes where Javert makes his worldview clear. The first occurs when he attempts to arrest Valjean after learning of his fake identity. Valjean begs for some time to help a poor orphaned girl that needs him, but Javert will have none of it. “A man like you can never change, a man such as you.” Despite the evidence, Javert cannot believe that Valjean is capable of doing good. Valjean is breaking the law by using a false identity; breaking the law is wicked.

To avoid really looking at Valjean, Javert dehumanizes him in his own mind by constantly calling him 24601 (his prison number) instead of his name. He is trying to blind himself to the reality of Valjean’s goodness.

All this breaks down in Javert’s final scene. After Valjean spares Javert’s life–an act that shocks Javert to the core, Javert apprehends him as he is saving the life of a wounded young man at great personal risk. All evidence points Javert to the frightening conclusion that Valjean is, in fact, a good person.

Does this mean he was good even when he stole that loaf of bread all those years ago? Does the context of the sin in fact matter? Was Javert, himself, the sinner by judging Valjean so harshly? How many other Valjeans are out there, living as slaves or prisoners of the law as rigidly interpreted by the likes of Javert?

All this is too much for Javert. He tries to ward off these thoughts, “I am the law and the law is not mocked!” he cries. It cannot be that the law is not absolute, that it should be malleable, that Valjean’s understanding was correct all these years. Is the law absolute or is it context-specific? These are two mutually exclusive worldviews and Javert cannot adjust himself to the latter. “There is nothing on earth that we share! It is either Valjean or Javert.”

And yet, Javert can no longer deny the evidence in front of his eyes. “Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?” Javert cannot come to terms with a world where the law is not absolute. Such a worldview places too much burden on Javert’s shoulders. The fear that he may have himself been doing terrible wrong to countless people is a searing pain Javert cannot bear.

I submit that the rabbinic establishment, which has been taxed with solving the agunah problem, is stuck in Javert’s crisis. To explain the agunah problem in a sentence, according to halakha (Jewish law), in order for a couple to be divorced a man is required to give his wife a gett (writ of divorce). Thus, if the man is unavailable or unwilling to do so, a woman is stranded as married yet not married—chained to a dead marriage and a lost or recalcitrant husband, unable to move forward with her life. Such a woman is called an agunah, a chained woman.

As Blu Greenberg states in her recent editorial, the situation of the agunah is “an undeniable injustice.” And yet, the injustice persists, and as a direct consequence of rigid application of the law. This is why the rabbinic establishment has become paralyzed. It is not because they do not care about these women, rather that they (we) cannot internalize the fact that the law we so cherish can actually be doing harm — that the halakha itself, as currently understood and practiced, is being unfair.

For this reason, many in the rabbinic establishment have spent considerable energy trying to explain away the injustice. “It is the inevitable down side of a good system,” some say. “Making divorce difficult strengthens marriage,” others suggest. “There must be some reason divorce works this way,” some respond, “are you challenging God?”

Many creative suggestions for solving the agunah problem have been discarded as a result of the focus on defending the law in its (imagined) pristine state, since it isn’t perfectly clear to some rabbis that these creative suggestions were necessarily efficacious suggestions from a purely halakhic / legal standpoint. “Sure there is precedent,” they say, “but we would want absolute demonstrative proof of the halakhic efficacy of these suggestions before using them in an institution as religiously binding as marriage and as halakhically loaded as divorce.”

Like Javert, these rabbis have become focused on circling the wagons around an imaginary “pristine” legal system, causing them to ignore the glaring fact that the system is not functioning properly in our society. As I said, there are solutions, halakhic solutions—precedents—for solving the agunah crisis in the Orthodox world. However, for the rabbis to make use of these precedents and suggestions, it would require them to admit the malleability of the halakhic system and its adjustment over time, to value protecting the vulnerable women over protecting the pristine integrity of system, to prefer stretching an argument or invoking an obscure rule over allowing Jewish wives to be held hostage by malicious and vindictive husbands with the Torah as their weapon of choice.

Instead of offering sweeping solutions, the rabbinic establishment has offered half measures that work for some cases, requested patience and understanding, declared a full solution to be impossible, and thrown the burden onto others.

How do we convince the establishment to realign their priorities and give up on their beloved fiction that the Torah cannot be responsible for any injustice or wrong no matter the circumstances? I do not know how to answer this question definitively, but, to return to Les Misérables, it is the same quandary Jean Valjean faced in his final scene with Javert.

In this scene, Jean Valjean, carrying the injured Marius on his shoulders, begs Javert to allow him to take the boy home to a doctor. “Look down, Javert, he’s standing in his grave. Give way, Javert. There is a life to save.” It was this moment, the moment Javert finally looked down and allowed himself to see the situation as it was—the injured boy dying, Valjean carrying him to safety—that opened the floodgates and allowed Javert to see the world as Valjean experienced it.

I make the same request of the rabbinic establishment, of the synagogues and other Jewish institutions, of all who can help make a difference.

Look down, rabbis and batei din; look down synagogues and rabbinic organizations. Look down and see the reality, the pain the halakha as currently interpreted is causing these women. Look at their shattered lives and the ugly extortionist behavior of their ex-husbands, all enabled by the current interpretation of halakha—by us. There are other ways to see the halakha, there are other precedents to follow. You will see this if you take a good, hard look. It was too late for Javert, but it is not too late for us. Look down.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He is also the senior editor of and a novelist (writing as Z. I. Farber).
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