Elchanan Poupko

Splashes on Instagram Won’t Free Agunot

Illustrative: The Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel. (JTA/Uriel Heilman)

In recent days the commendable campaign to free Malky Berkovitz and get her a Gett has become an example of how to win a battle while losing a war. Sure, the protests surely have a meaningful impact as they have brought awareness to the matter inside the abusive husband’s community and beyond. But then, like every battle that is fought, there is the temptation to win at all costs, no matter what the cost to the greater war has become. 

The goal in protesting a me’agen–a husband who refuses to give a Gett–is to create communal pressure. Communal pressure works best with broad consensus. Going to someone’s community, even if it is not your own community, helps create pressure within that community. Referring to all the women in that community as “Agunahs in the making” or trying to win over the support of the Orthodox community while saying Vashti is the person from Tanach you would like to meet most is not only unhelpful but is a crime against Agunahs. The nature of recent attempts to draw attention to the Agunah crisis highlights the need to address the Agunah crisis within the confines of the community in which the person faced with this pain is residing. 

When majoring in psychology, I remember how many classes taught us that you can never judge a client’s community or try to change their religious beliefs; you need to work within the framework of their community. Sure, if there is abuse or harm in a community that is not your own, everyone has the right and obligation to go to that community and put a stop to that harm. Such is the imperative to help an Agunah even if she does not live in your own community. But to go to an entire community and belittle all of the women in that community when you would never do that to any other religious group, is morally improper and causes damage to the person you are trying to help. 

As someone who works with the broader Jewish community, I have seen the painful cost of the Agunah crisis in a way others have not. I have seen husbands refusing a Gett when both parties are not going to keep Halacha the way we do in the frum community. Tolerating Gett refusal in our community leads to cases like that as well, which can bring about Mamzerim and all kinds of other Halachic crises. That is why I encourage everyone to sing the RCA prenup and to make sure it becomes a communal standard no matter what part of the Jewish community you belong to. The RCA prenup was created out of a quest to seek a solution to the crises that will solve this traumatic crisis, which inflicts immeasurable pain on so many while at the same time creating a consensus as broad as possible. 

I recall sitting one summer night in the home of Jerusalem’s Rabbinic Court Chief Dayan Rav Zalman Nechemya Goldberg in Jerusalem and discussing with him how this prenup was made together with Rabbi Mordechai Willing to address all the halachic concerns in this very complex field of Halacha. It is this kind of thinking that has actually solved more Aguna situations than anything else. The RCA prenup is by far the most effective way of preventing the crisis from arising in the first place. Organizations like ORA (Organizations for Resolution of Agunot) work professionally and diligently with rabbis, lawyers, Batei Din (rabbinic courts), and community organizers to apply as much pressure as possible to resolve Agunah situations. Anyone who can should volunteer their time to help with such efforts.

One can agree or disagree with the methods we have seen in the past few weeks, seeking to free Malky and raise awareness to the Agunah crisis. Yet there is no question that lambasting the same rabbis who spend day and night trying to help Agunas–or calling women in the Satmar community names— does not help that cause of Agunas and likely even harms them. I fear that recent tabloid-styled social media campaigns will not put Agundas in a better place and might even worsen their predicament.  

It is impossible to have this conversation and look at the discussion around it and not be pained by the fact that there are still 130 of our brothers and sisters being held hostage and tortured in the dungeons of Hamas, thousands of grieving families who lost their loved ones, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Israelis are out of a home and a war is looming on Israel’s northern border all this while Jews around the world face an unthinkable wave of antisemitism and hate. If our conversations do not reflect that spirit, a part of our soul has died. To husbands withholding a Gett I say: get over it. You are normalizing adultery, mamzerut, and undermining the will of many to even have a Jewish wedding. Those are all facts. You may think it is about your personal fight–it is not. You are unraveling the fabric of the Jewish people, and history will judge. Rise to the occasion, and let’s end this plague. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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