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The Agony Of Agunot

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Kotzo Shel Yod” (“The Point on Top of the Yod”), the 1887 poem by Judah Leib Gordon, includes a description of the cruel harassment by rabbis of an unfortunate agunah (literally, a “chained woman,” whose husband deserts her or disappears without divorcing her, thus preventing her from remarrying).

The description is vitriolic, wicked, dishonest, and disgraceful, in the spirit of the poets of the Enlightenment period, among whom Gordon was a central figure. The truth is that the leading rabbis in every generation clearly tried to find solutions, even far-fetched ones, for the distress of agunot.

The illustrious Rabbi Akiva Eiger (late 18th century) helped to release an agunah with the explanation that “the time is right to release a Jewish woman from the bonds of being an agunah, and Jewish women should not be hefker (victims of lawlessness).”

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (Kushta, 15th century) rules that the absence of a solution is liable to drive desperate women to sin, and therefore: “We are going to be lenient with an agunah… and in emergency we should rely on the words of one person. And there is no greater emergency than a situation where if a woman remains an agunah all her life, a mishap will definitely result.”

These great rabbis were no less God-fearing than the dayanim (rabbinical court judges) of the rabbinical courts of our time. They were also familiar with the warning of the sages against hastiness in judgment: “A dayan must always see himself as though the gates of Hell are open beneath him” (Sanhedrin 7a).

In their awareness of their great responsibility, how-ever, they were not afraid to seek solutions for difficult questions about agunot. Moreover, according to the Kabbala, releasing an agunah brings the redemption closer.

In modern times we also have the widespread syndrome of Jewish women being hefker and Jewish women denied a get (a religious divorce). Ostensibly, solving their problem according to halacha is much less complicated than releasing an agunah; moreover, the law has authorized the rabbinical courts to sentence a husband who denies a get to a long period of imprisonment.

Even so, there are dayanim who are opposed in principle to such enforcement, and even milder types of enforcement, for fear of a get kafui – a divorce granted under duress, which is not considered valid. Consequently, there are many recalcitrant husbands who exploit this situation for prolonged abuse.

It should be noted that not all dayanim adopt this stance, and the debate itself is a halachic one, since a get imposed on the husband against his will is invalid according to halacha – although if “he is beaten until he says ‘I agree,’ ” the get is considered kosher according to the Rambam. Dayanim are divided, though, over the types of sanctions that, according to halacha, can be imposed on husbands who deny their wives a get.

In light of this situation, Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently initiated a conference of dayanim from Israel and the Diaspora to seek ways to ease the distress of agunot and women who have been denied a get. But the conference, to which dozens of rabbis and dayanim came, was cancelled at the last minute (it had already been canceled once before, only to be rescheduled).

Instead of a respectable and serious conference that was three months in the planning, the guests marched off to a lunch at which it was not possible to discuss significant issues.

It is no secret that among the general public there is a growing sense of disgust with the rabbinical courts, the main reason being the foot-dragging in the cases of women denied a get. There is a woman, for instance, whose case has dragged on already for nine years, and the blackmailing husband is celebrating. He was lucky to get a “good” panel of dayanim who do not practice coercion.

I know that even stringent rabbis are not inflexible and hardhearted, but with their success in canceling the conference, they created the impression that the rabbinical courts are not at all interested in solving the problems of women who are denied a get.

What is the sense? Would it not have been better to speak and to be heard, even if only to prove that they are not disconnected from the community of suffering women?

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

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