Susan Weiss

Why we have not solved the agunah ‘problem’

Another year. Another Purim. And we still haven’t solved the “problem” of the agunah.

And we probably never will. Here are three reasons: marginalization, reification, and polarization.


Most persons assume that the agunah “problem” — the dilemma of the Jewish woman anchored to a marriage she wants to end — is a sad occurrence that somehow “befalls” a few unfortunate female souls. How sad.

These sad women may have had the misfortune of marrying bad men who refuse to divorce them. Or, perhaps they have had the awful luck of marrying men who have been in terrible accidents, became unconscious, and lost the capacity to divorce their wives. And then there are those exceptionally unlucky women whose husbands may have been Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hamas, and we don’t yet know if they’re being held in tunnels underground, or have been murdered. Alas. There is no way of confirming if those husbands are dead or alive. All these unfortunate, but rare and exceptional, women are agunot (plural for agunah).

One famous rabbi likened such circumstances to incurable fatal illness. Poor women. Poor agunot with bad karma. We’d love to help them, but sometimes, there is just nothing one can do.

No. This is all wrong. The agunah situation is not a rare “problem” that randomly “befalls” a few exceptionally unlucky women. It is the direct result of the legal consequences of Jewish marriage rules written by men probably around two thousand years ago. All Jewish women who marry in accordance with those religious rules are legally anchored in the bonds of holy matrimony to their husbands, until their husbands are either proven dead or physically and freely release them from those bonds with a Jewish divorce, a get. Those are the rules for all of us. Those of us women who are happily anchored are simply oblivious of our golden chains and our gilded cages. We all become agunot (anchored) while standing under the marriage canopy.

But even many veteran activists don’t openly acknowledge this. For them it is not a systemic legal issue, involving bad marriage and divorce laws that need to change. Rather the problem is a limited one, to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and often resolved with the help of good and hard-working rabbis.

Until we stop marginalizing the problem, we will not solve it.


Of course there are veteran activists among us who have known for a long time that the “problem” of the agunah is bad marriage and divorce laws in which all Jewish women are treated more like property than equal partners with their husbands.

And while some of the enlightened activists among us may have insisted that those laws, which were written by men, should be changed by women to reflect the values of equality and partnership (shout out to Rabbi Rachel Adler, Rivkah  Lubitch, Gail Labovitz, for example); still others, even those who admit that the laws are bad for women, dismiss such demands as impossible pipe dreams. They point out that those biased, bad laws are immutable, written in stone, from God, biblical in origin — de-Oraita. From the Torah. See Deuteronomy 24:1.

In short, many of us have reified Jewish marriage in ways that Orthodox Jews excel at. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman in the “Social Construction of Reality” explain: “Reification implies that (humans are) capable of forgetting (their) own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between (humans) the producers and (their) products is lost to consciousness.”

Reification is also sometime referred to as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. We falsely assume that the malleable product of our human activity, marriage and divorce rules, for example, is actually something concrete which cannot be altered. Like the infallible and immutable Word of God.

(Never mind that if one reads Deuteronomy 24:1 carefully, it is clear that it does not set forth any of the onerous Jewish divorce rules that favor men. It is simply the first part of the casuistic (if… then…) biblical rule that if a man sends his wife away from his home, he can’t take her back if he has relations with  another woman before he regrets his original decision….).

Until we understand that bad Jewish laws can be repealed, amended, or circumvented, we won’t solve the problem of the agunah.


And finally, there is the problem of polarization.

We simply do not agree. There is no consensus.

Even if all of us enlightened feminist activists hold hands and scream collectively and daily from a hilltop that these bad laws written by men thousands of years ago are affecting all of us and need to be changed, this will not be enough. Because an equally, if not overwhelmingly louder, chorus of persons, including some activists, will ignore us, having decided that we are simply ill-advised feminist reformists and extremists who don’t understand Jewish law and want to undermine the unity of the Jewish People.

Until most of us can agree on the moral implications of the situation and that the rules need to change, there will still be an agunah problem.

Till Then

Until we stop marginalizing and reifying, and get our collective act together, we will still need to keep managing the problem on a case by case basis: begging rabbis to issue more vacuous decisions ordering men to divorce their wives; asking more creative rabbis to annul an occasional marriage here or there; appealing to the Knesset to appoint more rabbinic judges to handle the very difficult and exceptional cases like those unfolding in Gaza; supporting special rabbinic squads to fly abroad to find recalcitrant husbands hiding in caves; passing undemocratic laws that expand the jurisdictional reach of Israeli rabbinic judges beyond the geographic borders of Israel; and , in general, entrenching and entangling us Israelis, who are compelled by law to marry in accordance these problematic religious laws, into a theocratic morass whose depth and breadth are limitless and whose consequences ripple beyond imagination.

So what’s a girl to do? Outside of Israel, marry in civil ceremonies. Inside Israel, stay in common-law relationships. And if you are already married in accordance with religious rules, pray.

Happy Purim.

About the Author
Susan Weiss, J.D. PhD., is the founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice, an NGO set up with a feminist spirit and an ambitious objective: To shift the discriminatory status quo of religion and state regarding women, securing the way towards a more just and democratic society. CWJ envisions an Israel where the dignity and liberty of women are self-evident truths.
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