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Unchaining The Agunah Problem


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In producing “Women Unchained,” a daring yet dignified film about women who can’t get a get – a Jewish divorce – filmmakers Beverly Siegel and Leta Lenik have done Jewish society a favor. By tackling the agunah problem with deep understanding of this complex issue, these two women have made it possible for rabbis and laypersons, ordinarily pitted against each other on this issue, to really hear the other side.

First, some definitions. A Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get is called an agunah, from the Hebrew word that means anchored. According to traditional Jewish law, which serves as the basis of jurisprudence on matters of personal status for all Jews in Israel, an agunah is not free to remarry and build a new life, even if she is civilly divorced, until she receives a get from her husband.

Moreover, for the get to be considered kosher, it must be given by the man of his own free will; it cannot ordinarily be forced. It is his decision, not the rabbis’ decision.

If an agunah flouts this restriction and marries civilly without a get and gives birth to a child, the child of that forbidden union may be stigmatized as a mamzer and, as such, be barred from marrying freely in a traditional Jewish ceremony anywhere in the world. No comparable penalty strikes a child fathered by a divorced or separated man who has not given his wife a get. This is the core of the problem. And this is the reason why some men hold out for – and get – astronomical sums of money to “buy” their free will.

“Women Unchained” tells the stories of five Orthodox women who are victims of their husband’s refusal to give them a get. Without resorting to hyperbole or hysterics, the filmmakers involve the viewer in the constrained rhythm of the women’s daily lives.

One works in the cafeteria of a Jewish day school to support her daughters, while waiting 10 years for her husband to release her. Another sits home alone at the computer shut out from joining a Jewish dating website because women who are divorced must have a get to be accepted. Another, a former victim of domestic violence whose father paid dearly to buy her get, tends her garden and tartly observes, “Each weed is a recalcitrant husband. Yank.”

Exposing the impact of get abuse on family members, the teenage daughter of one of the agunot asks why she should marry a Jewish man, if it might land her in the same situation as her mother. “I know I’m Jewish,” she says in a poignant scene, “but maybe I should just have a live-in boyfriend, so at least I’ll be able to be free.”

As personal sagas develop, narrator Mayim Bialik (a Ph.D. in neuroscience, though she’s better known for her roles in the television sitcoms “Blossom” and “The Big Bang Theory”) elegantly and with insight carries viewers on a journey that doesn’t flinch from describing the phenomena of domestic violence; get abuse; the traditional Jewish ban on reporting another Jew to secular authorities; Orthodox rabbinic inertia; hit men; and, in accounting-ledger detail, the “getonomics” that pinched the father of one agunah for $500,000 to buy his daughter’s freedom.

Historical background is engagingly conveyed while interviews with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski; Rabbi Gedalya Schwartz of the CRC; Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes; Project Eden founder Henna White; family law expert Alexandra Leichter; author/therapist M. Gary Neuman, and leading agunah-rights advocates (this author included), help to crystallize the important issues.

Lest one think non-Orthodox Jews are immune to these problems, the impact of the get issue on non-Orthodox Jews is deftly explained by Rabbi Seth Farber, who notes that if new olim want “to open a marriage file in Israel, they will have to provide certification from a recognized Orthodox rabbi.” A woman who’s been divorced will have to produce a get and in the case of the daughter of a woman who’s been divorced, “the rabbinate will insist on seeing an Orthodox get from the mother before they allow the daughter to open a marriage file.”

From the U.S. to Israel to Peru, unexpected twists and turns – some filmed in real time – bring the viewer to outrage as well as laughter out of disbelief. Nevertheless, this film does not leave us empty-handed or helpless. A clear statement is made to all marrying couples and their parents: A good Jewish marriage is one where the couple signs a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal. It works.

There is nothing easy about dealing with the agunah problem. It’s extremely uncomfortable to talk about; it’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated; following the Jewish law that leads to the problem is confusing if one is not a Talmudic scholar; it’s especially incomprehensible to those who were born with the silver spoon of civil rights built in to their lives.

Nonetheless, this documentary manages to bridge the gaps and overcome the obstacles, as it tells it like it is. “Women Unchained” is a sensitive depiction of the agunah problem – sensitive to the women and their families, sensitive to the rabbinic establishment, sensitive to Jewish law and practical in presenting a necessary solution.

Don’t leave this film before you watch the credits roll by – crucial information is provided for finding prenuptial agreements so that you can protect your loved ones. At the conclusion as well, “Women Unchained” filmmakers Siegel and Lenik have done Jewish society a favor.

Rachel Levmore, Ph.D., is a Rabbinical Court Advocate, coordinator of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and the Jewish Agency, and author of “Spare Your Eyes Tears” (published in Hebrew), on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.

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About the Author: Rachel Levmore (Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University) is a rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency, and author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.


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5 Responses to “Unchaining The Agunah Problem”

  1. Judaism is man-made. It is men who have taken the word of Hashem and interpreted it as they see fit. Only when women start taking matters into their own hands then it will be a religion where all are considered equal and free. We, as Jewish women, allow these abuses and then complain. Time to rewrite how Judaism views women and to stand up for our rights. Did it ever occur to all the orthodox women in the world to not accept the misogyny of these men?

  2. Beverly Siegel says:

    To arrange a screening of “Women Unchained,” contact Blair at the National Center for Jewish Film, housed at Brandeis, at blairs@brandeis.edu.

  3. Doris Jaffe says:

    “Women Unchained” should be shown at every Jewish Film Festival and every Jewish communal agency (shul programs during the weeks of SHOVAVIM; Sisterhoods, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, Amit, Emunah, etc.)

    Who are the rabbis who made the laws we call “d’rabbanan?” Who are today’s Gedolim and why aren’t they taking action to prevent women from becoming Agunot? Why don’t they update laws to allow women to be free to remarry one year after a divorce with or without a Get? Why are men allowed to get away with extorting money from their wives families?

    Ladies: No matter how severe your situation is, get your GET before your civil divorce. Otherwise there’s no incentive for your husband to grant a Get. Recalcitrant husbands need to be done away with. He’s slowly killing you by not giving you a Get so take charge to protect yourselves and your children. Better to be a widow/orphan than Agunot. May they day come very soon that all Agunot are set free.

  4. Beverly Siegel says:

    For further information about “Women Unchained” or to arrange a screening in your synagogue or community, contact National Center for Jewish Film, http://www.jewishfilms.org.

  5. Beverly Siegel says:

    For further information about “Women Unchained” or to arrange a screening in your synagogue or community, contact National Center for Jewish Film, http://www.jewishfilms.org.

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Presumably, almost all the readers of this publication are Orthodox Jews – those that pride themselves on serving G-d through fulfilling His commandments. Keeping in mind the rabbinical edict, “A mitzvah that comes your way—don’t miss it!” (Rashi, Bavli Megillah 6b), it would behoove the readers to know that an oft-missed mitzvah has come their way.

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.

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