On Wednesday, the internet was abuzz with (Hebrew) reports that MK Betzalel Smotrich had spent eight hours at the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court, where he participated in a hearing concerning an agunah — a woman held in marital captivity by her husband, who refused to issue her a religious bill of divorce. According to both Jewish and Israeli law, a Jewish couple is not divorced until the husband releases his wife by granting her a get, or writ of manumission, of his own free will. The ordeal came to an end when Smotrich signed as a guarantor for the woman’s financial commitment to her husband, to the tune of NIS 650,000, in order to grant the get. Thus, as reported, Smotrich “freed the agunah.”
I will leave aside, for the moment, the reports that strongly imply that yet another woman has bought her freedom. Nor will I elaborate on the fact that this woman discovered that her husband was a convicted pedophile after they married.
I want to draw attention to what I call the “Superman effect,” a dynamic exemplified by the above story. Fundamentally, someone, in this case Smotrich, arrives on the scene to “save the day.” The factors that allow the Superman effect to play out, and why it isn’t simply a wonderful thing are complicated, however. As follows:
First, the halakha is interpreted in ways that results in the potential of a Jewish woman who wants to divorce being trapped in marriage indefinitely, until her husband — ba’al, literally master or owner — agrees to release her from her bond.
Second, the establishment refuses to entertain any halakhic or civil tool that could neutralize this severe injustice in a comprehensive or systemic way.
Third, every aspect of the divorce process is essentially weaponized, in that each step of the way can be levied to harm any woman who awaits her get: husbands may resort to wholesale extortion (nay, are often encouraged to do it) in exchange for a get; husbands who do not give a get that has been court-mandated are rarely subjected to any of the mechanisms on the books to enforce the giving of the get, with get refusers rarely facing sanctions; the halakha surrounding avoiding a forced get is interpreted in the most stringent manner, such that even domestic violence is deemed insufficient grounds to compel a get.
Fourth — and here the Superman effect comes into play — in the shadow of this rabbinic system that is oppressive and suppressive, the community at large is encouraged to cheer the extraordinarily rare heroes who swoop in and dramatically “free” agunot. These instances are few and far between, but when they happen, they go viral. These “liberators” are always from within the establishment, are always met with great fanfare and praise, and are always, well, men.
The Superman effect is an integral part of how the institution of the agunah system functions in Israel, and, to a large extent, in Diaspora Jewish communities as well. I want to make it clear that there is no connection between this dynamic and Jewish law. This is not about halakha; this is about power.
Smotrich was not the first to unfurl his cape on behalf of an agunah, and he won’t be the last. Examples of this phenomenon are rampant. Here are two more examples:
Within Israel’s state rabbinic court is a specialized team known as the Agunah Department. The department’s public image is one of Rambo-esque superheroes who jet-set across the globe on secret missions, negotiating with shady characters and carrying out legally dubious operations until, at long last — cue dramatic music — they “free an agunah” (APPLAUSE). The Agunah Department even inspired an Israeli TV series, in which no one asks: why was the recalcitrant husband able to flee the country without a stop-exit order in the first place? Why hadn’t the couple signed a halakhic prenuptial agreement that would have allowed for an annulment in the event that the husband refused to give a get or disappeared? What happens to the dozens or hundreds of women who these superheroes fail to help? (I was once told by a rabbinic court judge that there are 170 such women. And those are the women who were known to the court; I personally know of many women who never opened a file in the rabbinic court, or who did open a file and then gave up.)
Here is a second example that, in my opinion, is worse because it reflects an absurd reality:
Two years ago, Israel’s state rabbinic court became authorized to adjudicate agunah cases from abroad, in cases concerning get-refusers who are neither Israeli citizens nor Israeli residents, but have come to Israel for various reasons. The rabbinic courts are so eager to act as Supermen for these foreign agunot, coming to their aid where their local rabbis have failed, that they levy sanctions on foreign get refusers at a rate of 70 percent (according to statistics provided by the Knesset Committee of Constitution, Law and Justice)! To put that in context, the rate of cases in which sanctions are levied on domestic get refusers is a paltry 3.3% (in 2019, according to data published by the rabbinic court administration). That is to say: Israeli agunot are already within the court’s control, jurisdiction, and monopoly, yet the court is in no rush to help them gain their freedom. Cynically, the court does not stand to gain anything by doing so. Indeed, to the contrary, the court enables the financial extortion of Israeli agunot and spends two or three or four or seven (!) years conducting hearings before even coming to the conclusion that the woman deserves a get. Whereas for foreign agunot, who aren’t within the Israeli court’s exclusive jurisdiction, see the full Superman save-the-day effect, showing the Jewish communities in the Diaspora how dearly they depend on the Israeli court’s intervention.
Now, a quick note concerning Jewish law. For years, a not insignificant number of tools and solutions have been proposed that would systemically unburden Jewish women from the looming threat of get refusal. Take, for example: halakhic prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, tnai’im bekiddushin (conditions that uphold marriage), hafka’at kiddushin (rabbinic abrogation of marriage), and harsha’a la’get (authorizing a proxy to grant a get). Plus, in the civil sphere, introducing the option of civil marriage in Israel — at the very least, for women who are not interested in having a halakhic marriage — as well as torts for get refusal. The ways to justify putting the kibosh on each of these proposals are legion. After all, halakhicists are experts at “creating problems for solutions,” to borrow a phrase from Professor Aviad HaCohen.
The result is that, in effect, contrary to every instinct of righteousness, justice, and morality that one would expect from religious leaders, the establishment traps all Jewish women in a power structure that they can only escape if they are fortunate enough to have married a benevolent, principled husband (though this is not a guarantee; there are still agunot whose wonderful husbands have gone missing or who have fallen into comas), or if they pose enough of an interest to the religious establishment to trigger the Superman effect on their behalf. Then, they become beneficiaries of all the help that the establishment has to offer. This exploitative power dynamic has no resemblance to the nuanced and intricate options that exist within the Torah, whose pathways are darchei no’am — ways of pleasantness.
Make no mistake: I certainly feel solidarity and share in the joy of the agunah who gained her freedom a few days ago.
But when Smotrich “freed” his personal agunah, he bolstered the establishment that oppresses agunot who do not have a Superman to save the day, and refuses to use the many rabbinically approved tools at its disposal.
Smotrich is not only a guarantor for this agunah; he is a guarantor for the perpetuity of the agunah problem.