Agunot again. In 1988 I attended an American Jewish Congress convention in Israel. In the middle of one of the speeches, a line of women tied together by chains pushed across the stage. On her chest each woman wore a letter that, taken all together, spelled the word “agunah,” a woman chained to a marriage from which she cannot free herself because her husband refuses to give her a get, a Jewish divorce. It seems unbelievable that in the almost quarter of a century since those women appeared on the stage at that convention, the suffering of the agunah still plagues the Jewish world and solutions to it still remain the subject of confusion and controversy.
The situation may be at its worst in Israel, where there are no civil marriages or divorces; both fall under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, that institution has steadily tightened its grip over all matrimonial areas. Last month, the Chief Rabbinate tried to stop a group of religious Zionist rabbis, Tzohar, from performing wedding ceremonies by withholding marital certificates from them. The immediate crisis was settled, but the future rights of these Modern Orthodox rabbis remain in doubt. (Don’t even ask about the chances for a Conservative or Reform marriage in Israel.)
Last month also, due to political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, the committee responsible for appointing judges to Israel’s rabbinical courts was organized without any female members. This means that judges who make divorce decisions that profoundly affect women’s lives — decisions about issuing a get or assigning child custody rights — will all be chosen by men, with no woman’s voice heard. This is the first time in 12 years that this committee has not included women.
Because of the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on marital issues, even some Orthodox couples have avoided the rabbinical establishment by choosing various forms of private marriages. Such couples may have strictly halachic wedding ceremonies, but instead of registering with the Chief Rabbinate, they register with a government agency as common law spouses. That way, in case a marriage falls apart, the pair can arrange their own divorce without going through the rabbinic courts.
For most Israelis, however, those courts are the only source for obtaining a religious divorce. For women whose husbands withhold that divorce, the courts can be a nightmare, or, at best, a convoluted maze of rules and procedures. One bright light in the country is the emergence of women advocates, toanot, who help guide agunot through the system.
The first institution established to train women advocates was the Monica Dennis Goldberg School, which also has a Legal Aid Center and Hotline. Founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and named for the late wife of the American art dealer Bernard Goldberg, the school had to fight a long legal battle to have the rabbinate recognize women as advocates. (Until then, only men were allowed to represent women in the rabbinic courts.) Now the rabbis accept the toanot, who are intensively trained in halacha, and many women struggling to free themselves from destructive marriages find it easier to confide in another woman than in a man.
In a typical case, a woman married to a violent and abusive husband applied to the rabbinic courts for a divorce. The husband refused to grant the divorce, insisting that he wanted another chance at shalom bayit, a peaceful home. The rabbis, who too often lean toward the husband’s side, denied the woman’s request. The man’s violence escalated and only the financial and legal maneuvers of the advocate finally forced him into giving the get.
Advocates can make all the difference in a woman’s life, moving her from misery to freedom.
No remedies, however, can take away from the basic fact of the fervently Orthodox control over marital matters in Israel. Golda Meir once said that she had never been as ashamed of anything as she was of signing the law of marriage and divorce that Ben-Gurion negotiated to gain the support of the religious parties. But that was long ago. Isn’t it time to undo that control and remove marriage and divorce in Israel from the domain of any one religious group?
There would be far fewer people getting married in Cyprus if civil marriage and divorce were accepted in Israel. And beyond that, isn’t it time for the rabbis of the world to reinterpret the biblical law that gives husbands the exclusive right to issue a divorce? The rabbis of old interpreted away many laws that did not apply to people’s lives — nobody today would dream of stoning an unruly child, as the Torah advocates, for example.
The agunah issue has got to be brought to an end. As Golda might say, it’s shameful that we are still grappling with it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently working on a biography of Golda Meir.