This year International Agunah Day was observed on March 7th, the Jewish calendar date of Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther.
The date was determined by ICAR – The International Coalition for Agunah Rights. ICAR is a coalition of 27 organizations working together to abolish defiance in granting a “get” (Jewish divorce) and extortion in the divorce process within the framework of Jewish Law.
An agunah is a woman whose husband has disappeared or does not have the capacity to deliver a bill of divorce because of his physical or mental condition. Then there are cases when a husband, albeit capable, simply refuses to deliver a bill of divorce to his wife.
Where does the word agunah come from? It is based on the word ogen, which means “anchor” in Hebrew; an agunah is a woman “anchored” in a marriage which in reality no longer exists. As long as she is an agunah a woman cannot free herself from this sham marriage and find happiness in a second one.
The Fast of Esther was designated by ICAR as Agunah Day in order to symbolize identification with Queen Esther. Like Esther, who was forced into a marriage she did not choose and was captive in her situation against her will, the agunah of the present era is a captive in the marriage, being held against her will. Like Esther, many women who are refused a “get” are in fear of their spouses and live a double life. Like Esther, the agunah finds herself lacking control over her freedom just as if she was a Persian female slave.
ICAR was preceded by an organization, the Religious Women’s Forum, with similar objectives. The forum was founded in 1998 by fifty women affiliated with the National Religious movement – academicians, wives of rabbis, lawyers and educators – with the intention of changing the status of the religious woman in communities where, in contrast to her status in the marketplace, it seems as if she has been assigned an inferior position. The Forum, now called “Kolech” (Your Voice), has sought to encourage the advancement of women within the religiously observant Orthodox community. At present Kolech has branches in Modi’in, Ma’aleh Adumim, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ramat Gan, Rehovot, Petah Tikva, Raanana, Jerusalem, and in many communities in northern Israel.
The problem with the issue of agunot (plural of Agunah) is considered one of the greatest crises in the Orthodox world today.
Recently I came across an interesting historical item. The Karaite Jews, a sect of Jews who limit their observance to Torah sheBichtav, meaning they do not recognize the validity of the Oral Law, declare that a woman is entitled to a legal divorce no matter what. If a man refuses to give a formal divorce to his wife, the beit din (Jewish legal court) may exercise its legal power to grant her a divorce instead. While it has no meaning for us, it was an interesting look into history.
In a very short time we will sit down at the Pesach seder table and celebrate our freedom and salvation. Let us remember in our prayers our people the world over who are held captive in enemy hands, and include the agunah and her children in our midst, that they too be released from their marital prison to a life of personal liberty and a future of marital happiness.