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Looking For Rabbinic Heroes

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The landmark meeting of the first Global Rabbinic Task Force on Agunot, scheduled to be held in Jerusalem this week, was the culmination of a decades-long struggle by the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) to facilitate such a rabbinical summit. Its last-minute cancellation by Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has disappointed all of us, but is most devastating for the world’s agunot – those women who remain trapped in broken Jewish marriages because their husbands refuse to give them the necessary halachic divorce document (get).

Since the 1950’s, ICJW has pursued the plight of agunot as part of its international campaign for women’s rights, never wavering from its original mandate to encourage and support the rabbis in their efforts to resolve the issues facing agunot and mesuravot get within a halachic framework.

Although ICJW encompasses Jewish women of all religious and non-religious affiliations, the organizational leadership is attuned to the fact that, in order to sustain the unity of the Jewish people, a solution must be found that is accepted by all sectors. The issue of universality was also seen to be crucial, as the ability for rabbis to decide on acceptable plans of action in tandem would be an important element in achieving general consensus.

Over the years, ICJW has kept up the pressure by means of several international petitions and meetings with various Israeli chief rabbis. We believed that the authority of the Israeli rabbinical courts was key if there were to be any practical application of proposed solutions worldwide.

For the last two years, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar cooperated actively with ICJW in working toward this goal. We were convinced of his sincerity and admired his courage in going forward with the idea of a conference, to the point of his issuing invitations – jointly with ICJW – to leading rabbis and rabbinical court judges from all over the world, and drawing up a program that highlighted all the relevant topics.

ICJW enlisted the help of its affiliates to encourage the participation of the rabbis who had been invited from their communities. There was a general feeling of cooperation, of all sides working together for the greater good. I venture to say that there was even hope of a possible breakthrough, of a breach in the logjam. Rabbi Amar was on the threshold of becoming a hero.

Perhaps the dearth of heroes is a sign of our times. Rabbi Amar caved in to a barrage of considerable pressure from ultra-orthodox circles; they campaigned incessantly in many Jewish communities to intimidate the rabbis and delegitimize the conference.

Since the mandate was and continues to be solutions within the framework of halacha, I can only conclude that there were ulterior motives in these attempts to have it cancelled. Among them I would number a fear of losing one of the last bastions of patriarchal hegemony, of attempting to silence the voices of women, of denying the social changes in the Jewish world that have resulted in much higher divorce rates than at any time in Jewish history, and of being oblivious to the needs and future of the Jewish people beyond certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

Despite our extreme disappointment at the cancellation of the conference, I sense that this will be a hollow victory. The underlying problems are not about to disappear. The forces that are demanding solutions are strong and widespread. The pressure will not abate. In the meantime Jewish women are suffering, and those who believe in the justice and righteousness of the Jewish religion cannot reconcile these beliefs with the present situation.

The plight of agunot, their children, and the extended families who suffer with them should not be seen as “just a women’s issue.” The collective welfare and future of the Jewish people must take precedence over vested interests. The suffering is too great, and the stakes are too high. Therefore, the pressure for viable halachic solutions must continue.

The rabbis who were invited to speak at the conference prepared in-depth presentations for the meeting. Now that it will not take place in Jerusalem, they must regroup and find alternate high-profile platforms to present their ideas. The original intent of the meeting must be preserved. The international collaboration that characterized the conference preparations must spill over into alternative avenues of cooperation.

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