The Agunah Problem is Nothing Less than Community Abuse
The problem of the agunah, a woman who cannot obtain a religious divorce (a “get”) even after her marriage has been civilly terminated, is a serious one in the Jewish community. The term “agunah” traditionally referred to a woman whose husband had disappeared in wartime or at sea, but today, many agunot find themselves “chained” by husbands who refuse to give them a get.
This refusal is a common form of spousal abuse and a way for men to keep power and control over their wives, preventing them from moving on with their lives. Being an agunah can create real hardship and sorrow for a woman, her children, and her friends and family. It is a problem that must be addressed, and there are several solutions that can be explored.
The refusal to give a get is definitely abusive, wrong, and evil. It is a violation of basic human rights and Jewish law, which encourages treating others with kindness and respect. The Talmud states that a man should not withhold a get from his wife “even if she cooks his food with salt instead of spices.” This means that even if the wife is not perfect, the husband still must give her a get. The Talmud also states that anyone who withholds a get is considered to be committing a sin and is punished by God.
The problem of the agunah is complex, as it is rooted in the structure of Jewish divorce law. To understand the nature of the problem and why solutions are not easily found, it is necessary to explore some of the dynamics of this law. A halachically-valid marriage may be terminated only by the death of either spouse or by the husband (or his agent) delivering a get to the wife (or her agent). A civil divorce has absolutely no validity in the eyes of Jewish law. If a woman attempts to marry without obtaining a get, the marriage is still considered valid and any children born of the union are considered mamzerim, which means they are illegitimate and cannot marry other Jews. This makes the get a critical component of Jewish divorce law.
In Jewish law, the get is considered to be the exclusive right of the husband, and he must give it willingly and without coercion. While Jewish law does not require the husband to provide a reason for the divorce, it does require him to give it freely, of his own accord. This creates a situation where a husband can use the get as a bargaining chip, withholding it unless he is given something in return. Often, a man abuses his power by refusing to give a get unless his wife agrees to give him custody of their children, money, or something else that he wants.
Being an agunah can create real hardship and sorrow for a woman, her children, and for her friends and family. As an agunah, she is unable to remarry and have full control over her own life decisions. For Orthodox women especially, whose identity is often tied to being a wife and mother, the inability to remarry and perhaps have children can make her feel as if she has lost her identity. Many agunot feel trapped in their marriages, unable to move on with their lives, and powerless to change their situation.
There are several ways in which the problem of the agunah can be solved. Some of these solutions are legal, while others are social or religious in nature. One possible solution is the use of prenuptial agreements. A prenuptial agreement is a legal document that stipulates that if a husband refuses to give his wife a get, he will be required to pay her a significant sum of money. These agreements can be enforced in civil courts, which gives women an added layer of protection. Prenuptial agreements can also include provisions that require the husband to give a get in a timely manner, thereby preventing him from using it as leverage.
Another solution is the use of halachic prenuptial agreements, which are agreements that are recognized by Jewish law. These agreements can be designed to ensure that both parties agree to participate in the Jewish divorce process and that they will not withhold a get from each other. In cases where a husband refuses to give a get, a halachic prenuptial agreement can be used to encourage him to do so by imposing financial penalties or other consequences.
In addition to prenuptial agreements, there are other legal solutions that can be explored. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that make it a criminal offense to withhold a get. These laws can be effective in preventing husbands from using the get as a bargaining chip and can provide women with legal recourse if their husbands refuse to give them a get.
Social solutions are also important in addressing the problem of the agunah.
Rabbis and communal leaders can play a critical role in addressing the problem by speaking out against the practice of withholding a get and by providing support and resources for women who find themselves in this situation.
In addition, communal pressure can be brought to bear on husbands who refuse to give a get, which can be effective in changing their behavior.
Religious solutions are also possible. Some rabbis have explored the use of creative halachic solutions, such as the annulment of a marriage if the husband refuses to give a get.
These solutions are controversial and are not universally accepted, but they do demonstrate that there are ways in which Jewish law can be interpreted to provide relief for agunot.
The problem of the agunah is a serious one that requires attention and action from the Jewish community. There are several solutions that can be explored, including legal, social, and religious solutions.
It is important for rabbis, communal leaders, and individuals to speak out against the practice of withholding a get and to provide support and resources for women who find themselves in this situation. Those who refuse to, should surely be shamed.
By working together, we can help to ensure that no woman is ever “chained” in her marriage again.