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Leniencies In The Matter Of Agunot

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Leading rabbis in every generation have tried to find solutions, even far-fetched ones, for the distress of agunot – women whose husbands desert them and refuse to give a get, thus preventing them from remarrying.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger helped release an agunah with the explanation that “The time is right to release a Jewish wife from being an agunah, and Jewish women should not be hefker (ownerless victims who are trapped and might be led to sin). Thus we are going to be lenient with an agunah.”

The Maharam of Rotenberg in his responsa goes so far to rescue an agunah by invoking the concept of mekach ta’ut (marriage under false pretenses); had the wife known that her husband was so cruel, she never would have married him. Therefore the act of Kiddushin (marriage) is annulled “l’mafria” (retroactively) using the concept of hefker beis din hefker (what beis din declares null and void is null and void).

These great rabbis were no less God-fearing than the dayanim of today. But they were not afraid to seek solutions for complex questions regarding agunot. Moreover, according to Kabbalah, releasing an agunah brings the Final Redemption closer.

Solving the problem of agunot in a manner consistent with halacha is one of the major rabbinic challenges of our time. Israeli law has authorized the rabbinical courts to imprison a husband who denies his wife a get. However, there are dayanim (rabbinic judges) who oppose such enforcement for fear of a get kafui – a divorce granted under coercion, which is not considered valid. Consequently, many cruel husbands exploit the situation and prolong the abuse of their wives.

This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, a get imposed on a husband against his will is invalid according to halacha. On the other hand, the Rambam rules concerning a husband who refuses to give his wife a get: “He is beaten until he says, ‘I agree.’ ” The Rambam says such a get is valid.

This seeming contradiction is explained by the existence or lack thereof of a decree of beis bin requiring the husband to divorce his wife. Most opinions agree that without such a prior rabbinical court decree, even mild persuasion might threaten the non-coerced requirement of the get.

When, however, a rabbinical court decree requiring the husband to divorce his wife is secured, persuasion, coercion, and even force are considered valid in bringing the husband to comply with the decree of the beis din and give a get of his own free will.

Today’s rabbanim are divided over the types of sanctions that according to halacha can be imposed on husbands who deny their wives a get. The unresolved nature of these differences of rabbinical opinion has led to many wives living as captives to unscrupulous husbands who hold them in chains and blackmail them.

Many rabbinical judges seem to ignore the directive of the great Maharsha in the Talmud Bavli Yevamot: “To free an agunah our rabbis invoked many far-reaching leniencies.”

The Maharsha concludes: “God must grant courage to rabbinical judges so that trapped and captive suffering wives will be blessed with peace and domestic tranquility.”

About the Author: Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.


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