According to the Torah, to end a marriage a man must grant his wife a divorce. When Rabbeinu Gershon saw, a thousand years ago, that takanos were necessary, he instituted a widely accepted ruling that a man could not divorce his wife without her consent. This protected the woman from being summarily thrown out on the street and balanced the rights of both.
The value of this takanah was to protect the institution of marriage and make it strong. As we know, havaas shalom bein ish l’ishto is rewarded in this world and in the World to Come.
What has evolved in the secular world, and now unfortunately in the Torah world as well, is the concept of divorce on demand, whereby neither partner bears an obligation to his or her spouse or to children and family and can demand a divorce at will. While there have always been warranted causes for divorce – and men and women in such situations should be helped to end their marriages – the number of divorces far exceeds any reasonable estimate of the frequency of justifiable situations.
It is no longer common for people to live with a marriage that requires one or the other to adjust to and accept situations that are not what one expected. On the advice of parents and concerned friends, couples choose lawyers or, in the beis din, toanim. This just compounds the problem because these advocates have much to gain by drawing out and exacerbating conflict (their fees are often $250 an hour and up). Additionally, each is out to gain as much as possible for his client without regard to justice. Pressure tactics, even agunah protests, just make both sides more rigid.
What can be done?
First, as the mesader kiddushin told my daughter and son-in-law in a pre-marriage meeting and under the chupah, “Your first allegiance is now to each other. If you have any problems, do not go to your parents. Go to a trusted rabbi or mentor, and work on the issues. Marriage is a lifetime endeavor.”
Second, when divorce first became legal in New York State, a two-year wait was necessary between filing for the divorce and its becoming final. If all frum couples seeking divorce were obligated to go for two years of counseling with approved marriage counselors, and to cooperate with their advice, many marriages might be saved.
Finally, not every woman who wants out should be encouraged in her claims of “agunah.” On the contrary, we must, as a community, exert more emphasis on preserving rather than ending marriages. Many may find that unhappiness with self or spouse is more easily ameliorated, in the long run, by working on issues and resolving them.
With prayers that all Jewish homes be filled with happiness,