Robert Lichtman

The agunah key: A true story that never happened


(Tapuz Ma’arav) Archeologists and Biblical scholars have concluded their years-long secret analysis of a fragment of ancient parchment that may provide a new approach on how spouses who are chained in dead marriages may be freed.  The new approach is not new at all, according to these scholars, but was lost after being revealed originally at the giving of the Torah in Sinai.

The fragment, known as the Agunah Key, was scrutinized by an international and interdisciplinary team of specialists who examined the Hebrew script style, grammar and syntax, parchment and ink, carbon-dating the fragment to the time of the Exodus and unanimously confirming its authenticity as a missing part of the original Torah presented to the Jewish People from the mouth of God through Moses.

“Holding a parchment upon which the fingers of Moses moved, seeing his hand-writing, reading the words dictated by the creator of the Universe, is literally the defining, awe-inspiring experience of a lifetime,” said Rabbi Gershon Shalom, PhD, lead investigator of the review team.  “And what is more exciting – if that is even possible to imagine – is the newly revealed content of the fragment which provides deeper meaning to Jewish law, adds luster to the beauty of Torah and establishes life anew for thousands.”

The fragment as translated reads as follows with the newly revealed text in italics,

When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemliness in her, then let him write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.

And if the latter husband hates her, and write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house; or if the latter husband, who took her to be his wife, should die, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she is defiled.

Then arose Yishmael ben Ahava, brother of a woman whose husband found no favor in her and withheld the bill of divorce from her for usurious payment.  He beseeched Moses saying, “Surely a monster should not imprison my sister, isolating her from love, from a new man, from bearing God-fearing children whose souls will wander the heavens as long as her tormentor holds her freedom for ransom.”

God said to Moses, “Truly ben Ahava has spoken.  This shall be the law if a man and woman agree to divorce and one thwarts delivery of the bill of divorce for payment.  One may bring evidence of the other’s treachery to the judges who will render judgement and free the one who is wronged. Couples who seek divorce shall not be compelled to stay together, for that is an abomination before the Lord and you shall not cause the land to be sinful, which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.”

 The context will be familiar as a version of Deuteronomy 24, which has been read and studied for over 3,000 years without the complete original text that relates to the tragic condition of someone chained in a failed marriage, an agunah.  The extant version of the Torah provides little choice of interpretation other than to require that the Bill of Divorce (“Get,” in Hebrew) is proffered voluntarily by the husband and accepted similarly by the wife.

Shalom explained further, “A centuries-old perversion of this interpretation allows a spouse, usually the husband, to withhold the Get until the woman and more likely the woman’s family, meets outrageous financial demands which may leave the woman not only emotionally broken but impoverished.  In hundreds if not thousands of cases where such extortion cannot be satisfied, the woman is chained to a dead marriage with no prospect of moving on and creating a new family.  Some rabbinic courts have relied on personal or public coercion to force the ‘voluntary’ acquiescence of the recalcitrant spouse to comply.  These efforts meet with mixed and often disappointing results.  The application of God’s laws as amended, and clearly as intended, resolves this most unfortunate and unworkable strategy by acknowledging and acting upon the couple’s common intent without empowering one party over the other.  Simply put, this discovery provides the key to free agunot.”

Shalom pointed out that “Changes, amendments and innovation within the Torah itself are not unusual.  When the daughters of Tzelafchad raised an objection about the original version of inheritance law bypassing a daughter’s rights, God agreed with their perspective and amended the law.”

Further examples offered by scholars include God’s agreement to establish a Passover make-up (Pesach Sheni) for Jews who were told that their ritual state would disqualify them from observing Passover and expressed their desire to be included; the creation of a multi-tiered judiciary springing from Jethro’s imagination, supplanting Moses’ practice; Moses’ allowance of two and a-half tribes to settle outside of the original Biblical Land of Israel, because they asked.  For centuries scholars examining the inequity of the Agunah situation based on Biblical verses have pondered the possibility that, like in other cases, had the original law been questioned in real time, would that not have resulted in a more nuanced pronouncement by a merciful God and a clarification of the law that would have spared generations of unnecessary suffering?

Shalom and his team are convinced that this fragment of the original Torah, although separated by millennia from its host text, indeed expands the understanding of Jewish divorce procedures and will enable agunot opportunities to live new lives unshackled from an incomplete understanding and application of Torah law.

Shalom explained the consensus opinion of the scholarly team as to how the fragment came uncoupled from the master text.

“Moses, as the prophet charged by God to instruct and guide God’s nation, was also the human being in the closest relationship with God.  It was Moses, and no one other than Moses who could have talked God down from God’s decision to annihilate the Jewish People and to build a new nation from Moses after the debacle of the Golden Calf, as described in Exodus 32.  The Torah recounts the exchange; Moses does not wish to be in a Torah without the Jewish People.  God accedes to Moses’ position and rather than have a Torah devoid of Moses, rather than erasing the entire Jewish People, God focuses vengeance on those who bear the guilt of the sin.  God promises that it is those individuals who sinned, not Moses and not the nation, that God will excise from the Torah.  Shalom and the team posit that Yishmael ben Ahavah was one of the sinners, and in fulfillment of God’s promise his name and his legacy was among those erased from the newly redacted Torah that was handed down from generation to generation from that day on.

As exciting as the discovery is, Shalom speaks for the team about its deeper ramifications when he says, “Each one of us is proud to be associated with the truly historic recovery of this long-lost and keen insight into human emotion and dynamics, elements that make us human, elements that are known to God who created humans. Our work ends here with the unanimous authentication of this Torah fragment, determination of its origin and understanding of how it was separated from the Torah as we have come to know it.  Our hopes do not end here.  Our hopes extend to the minds – and the hearts, really – of rabbinic scholars who interpret Torah for daily application to be open to not newer but deeper interpretations of a living Torah. Our hopes extend to Jewish communities throughout the world and throughout time that will be unencumbered from a misapplied millstone and freed to create new life, new worlds, and greater love of Torah.”

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
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