Of Agunot and Yoatzot: Shifting a Paradigm of Powerlessness

A chained woman.

This is the way agunot, women who have unsuccessfully sought a get (a bill of divorce) from their husbands, are described in the media. A cursory scroll through Facebook in the past couple of weeks would lead one to believe that the Orthodox community has created a proper epidemic of chained women—helpless victims, with no recourse but to spill the most intimate details of their lives onto the pages of the Forward, or the New York Post, in the meager hopes of gaining communal sympathy, support, and maybe, just maybe, freedom.

Gital Dodelson

But, in the case of Gital Dodelson, who published her highly personal story of being an agunah in the Post on November 4th, the publicity did not gain her freedom. Rather, her story has erupted into a battle of hurt pride and flying accusations. Her ex-husband, Avrohom Meir Weiss, is legacy to a long line of Rabbinic greatness. He is the descendent of the esteemed Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895—1986) who, ironically, was the champion of many agunah cases. Weiss’ family has chosen to stand by him through the storm of controversy, stubbornly insisting that Dodelson’s story is full of lies and exaggerations. The “Free Gital” Facebook page, created a few months prior to the story breaking, has since received over 13,000 likes. (Find out more about Gital’s story HERE.)

Perhaps there is another side to this story. Perhaps it is true, as the Weiss/Feinstein family claims, that it was the Dodelson’s family who refused the terms of arbitration, rather than the other way around. But when it comes to an agunah, all we see is a trapped woman. A victim, with no recourse but to beg, plead, grovel, or turn her back on her religion all together (a course many women in similar positions have chosen). It is hard to buy the ‘two sides of the story’ claim when one party has all the power at his disposal, the other party none at all. The agunah crisis is not a disagreement between equals. It’s a fight between the powerful and the powerless.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, Executive Director at the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), said in a recent interview, “In abuse, there’s no other side. Abuse is never justified.” Refusing to give a get is a form of abuse.

Let’s turn to another event that took place this month: the American Jewish community celebrated its first graduating class of Yoatzot Halachot, women trained in the complex laws of family purity. It was a pristine moment of female empowerment.

Sitting in the front row of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (America’s first Jewish congregation, founded in 1654), I was privileged to witness this momentous step in Jewish ritual life. Five distinguished female leaders, including Stern’s very own Nechama Price, were presented with certification and recognition for two years of intensive study. Each graduate will go on to serve as the yoetzet in five of America’s largest Orthodox communities, advising women about intimate details of family life, fertility, and sexual health and practice. The event was attended and praised by nearly all of standout Rabbis in the Orthodox community today. An overwhelming feeling of pride, accomplishment, and progress pervaded the synagogue as each woman stepped forward.

“We face squarely, without apologetics, that women confront a problem of inequality,” said Dr. Giti Bendheim, Yoatzot Halacha Chair, in the program’s opening remarks, citing the current agunah crisis as an example. “This program, and the accomplishments of these five women, is a way to combat that reality,” she concluded. Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, referred to the program in his keynote address as “an idea whose time has come.”

On the one hand, progress, empowerment and real change. On the other, laws that seem as rigid and recalcitrant as the husbands they cruelly empower.

The events of this month have left me questioning: Is there truly room for progress within our strict, and often unforgiving, code of law?

An optimist, I choose to believe that the answer is yes. Women occupying positions of leadership is no aberration. It is harbinger for what is to come. “Visionaries know how to recognize a trend,” said Lisa Septimus, Yoetzet of the Five Towns. If we, as women, are bothered by the inequalities within our religious system, it is within our power to confront them.

I write to encourage young women within the Jewish community to shift this paradigm of powerlessness. Rather than railing against the inequality that underpins the problem, shift the frame. It is within our hands.

With regard to the agunah crisis, the most proactive way to address the problem is by signing a halachic prenuptial agreement before marriage (a halachic prenup). Unlike the standard prenup, a halachic prenup solely addresses the issue of the get. The halachic prenup has two essential elements: the first is an agreement that both parties, in the case of separation, will go to a particular Beit Din to adjudicate the issuance of a get. As there are many corrupt Batei Din (one of the most significant problems ORA faces), the couple agrees upon which Beit Din to use before marriage.

The second part of the halachic prenup is the financial element. The prenup states that if a husband refuses to issue his wife a get, he is penalized $150 a day (nearly $55,000 a year). According to the Beit Din of America, this has been 100% effective in preventing cases of agunot. It’s important to note that the point of a halachic prenup is not for the wife to cash in on the husband’s recalcitrance; rather, it provides a financial disincentive for a husband to refuse to issue a get. Unlike the ketubah, the prenup is a civilly binding legal document. (More details are easily accessible on ORA’s website.)

On the verge of marriage, I myself signed a halachic prenup last week. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease and straightforwardness of the process. In a corner of the busily humming Heights Lounge, I stood with my fiancé, a notary, and two friends and did my part to ameliorate a crisis that need not be.

Paradigms don’t shift easily. But they do shift. Female halachic disempowerment is an uncomfortable reality to face—but it is a reality that need no longer be our own.

A chained woman. Let us not fall prey to ensnaring ourselves.

Thank you to Kimberly Hay, Stern student and ORA activist, who helped me with the factual content of this article. 


About the Author
Hannah Dreyfus is a junior at Yeshiva University pursuing a dual degree in Journalism and Philosophy. She serves as an Editorial Intern for The Jewish Week and the Editor in Chief for the The YU Observer.