Editor’s Note: International Agunah Day is marked yearly on Ta’anit Esther, which falls this year on Thursday, March 17.
It began in the United States with the Yiddish newspaper the Forward in the first half of the 20th century. The galeriye fun farshvundene mener (gallery of vanished husbands) appeared regularly, listing names and photos of men who had disappeared leaving their wives as agunot, chained to a Jewish marriage. The Jewish Press followed in the latter decades of the century, launching its own weekly seiruv list.
At the turn of the 21st century the rabbinical courts in Israel realized the potential of the Internet and began listing the names, photos and descriptions of the most extreme cases of get-refusers under the title “Most Wanted” (www.rbc.gov.il). Shortly thereafter, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (www.getora.com) began to prominently display those who have had seiruvim issued against them, in a measure intended to convince recalcitrant husbands to release their wives.
Yet the shameful list grows along with the unprecedented flow of information. The situation is so severe that the agunah problem has been increasingly visible in the media, both general and Jewish.
The Washington Post (Feb. 5, 2006 about Sarah and Sam Rosenbloom), the Wall Street Journal (Aug 24, 2007 about Susan Rosenfeld and Ariel Hacohen), YouTube (Dec. 19, 2010 about Tamar Epstein and Aharon Friedman) and The New York Times (Jan 3, 2011, Epstein and Freidman) have examined the supposed “shaming” of the get-refusers. In doing so, however, these secular media outlets also exposed the shame of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Our community prides itself on the morality inherent in our laws and customs. The wisdom of our rabbis is drawn upon by national committees dealing with ethical questions such as abortion and organ transplants. We lift our communal head high when one of our members is recognized by the world at large for a noteworthy contribution.
Moreover, the Orthodox world touts its stable family units where the woman is valued and praised every Friday night. How tragic is it, then, that the same community demonstrates by its actions – or rather its inaction – that a woman is not truly valued? She is not considered worthy or capable of making the weighty decision to exit a dead marriage – certainly not enough that the wisdom of the rabbis should be applied to help her extricate herself from an untenable situation.
On the surface, we have a clash between precepts of democracy and Jewish law. It is a biblical injunction, d’oraita, that a man must give his wife a get willingly in order for the divorce to take place. So, according to Torah law, a man can divorce his wife while a woman cannot divorce her husband. (According to rabbinic law a man cannot divorce his wife without her agreement as well, though there is an “escape clause” of heter me’ah rabbanim.) However, this premise is not being called into question here. It is the deeper and more complex dimension of the role of the rabbis that is being addressed in the discussions of the press.
At its core, the problem is not that of the man having power over the woman – it is of the man having power over the rabbis.
While rabbis and community leaders at the time of the Forward’s gallery of vanished husbands truly believed they were doing all they could to end the suffering of agunot by searching for the wayward husbands, that level of effort does not suffice today. The rabbis must recognize that there are great dangers in the present situation, where a rabbinical court is dependent on a recalcitrant husband to put its ruling into effect.
There are dangers to the wife; to the joint children who need co-parenting; to her future never-to-be born children or even future children from another man while an agunah; and, on a communal level, to the very fabric of the Orthodox Jewish community where rabbis are expected to be the ultimate leaders. Because rabbis are allowing individual men to refuse to heed their rulings. And it is there for the world to see.
There are halachic processes for the rabbis to take back their authority. For example, the Rabbinical Council of America demands that each couple marrying under its auspices sign the prenuptial agreement of the Beth Din of America designed to prevent get-refusal. But where are the rabbis of other communities? Why is there not a wall-to-wall rabbinical coalition dealing with the problem of get-refusal? Where is the standardized communal obligation to sign a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal?