Throughout the long dark night of our exile, when we found ourselves at the precarious “mercy” of the inhabitants of the lands we were residing in, each and every Jewish community made it their utmost priority to rescue any man, woman or child who had the misfortune to be kidnapped, captured or unjustly thrown in prison. Whether these unfortunate souls were being held by bandits, landlords or greedy officials eager for ransom money, every effort was made to free them.
Pidyon Shevuyim – the redeeming of captives, was a mitzvah that all members of the kehillah participated in. All community resources were immediately pooled to that end – be it money, political influence or social contacts. No effort was spared in the pursuit of a prisoner’s release.
The holy mitzvah of freeing the “chained” was a priority that everyone engaged in to the best of their ability.
Unfortunately, it appears that this sacred dedication to securing the release of the incarcerated has evaporated when it comes to a certain vulnerable element of the community – the agunah.
The term “agunah” is universally recognized as the word to describe a woman whose husband will not give her a “get” – a writ of divorce as prescribed by Jewish law. This is a modern, rather recent interpretation of the word. Originally, agunah referred to woman whose husband was missing, likely someone who had gone on a journey, – decades ago a risky undertaking – and had not returned. Without a body to confirm his death, the man was considered to be alive. His spouse was left in a marital limbo – neither widow nor wife, married in name only.
The Torah understood how horrendous the status quo was for the wife of a missing man whose fate was unknown, and did not apply the traditional legal requirement that two competent male witnesses verify that indeed they saw him dead. A lone woman’s testimony that she knew the man had perished was enough to transform the agunah into a widow, and allow her the possibility of a cherished second chance at life.
The agunah as she exists today – the getless woman, was a rarity – as was divorce. But in those infrequent situations where a marriage was burdensome but a get not forthcoming, the husband became an outcast- a pariah, with all members of the kehillah snubbing him and making his life difficult – until he granted a divorce.
The agunah’s plight concerned everybody and the community at large rallied around her and lent their support in helping her obtain her freedom – and the priceless opportunity to build a bayit ne’eman with someone else.
Today there are hundreds of frum women in the Jewish world who are prisoners being held against their will to remain in marriages that in their minds are over. Often they have been granted a civil divorce, but without a get, it is only a piece of paper.
These hapless souls are neither married nor single, and though they are free to leave their homes and interact with other human beings, they are shackled and held back socially and psychologically, halachically joined to men they no longer view as their husbands.
How disturbing and heartbreaking that those locking them in what can be described as marital prison are Jews – and consider themselves Torah observant.
What a sad irony, that in the 21st century, where most Jews do not have to “tzitter” (be nervous or antsy) as they go about their business, ever mindful that they can be set upon and abducted by anti-Semitic louts and brutes; where laws and rules are in place to protect all members of society from the arbitrary whims of powerful or ruthless individuals or institutions, the great majority of shevuyim of this era are overwhelmingly Jewish women held captive by Jewish men.
Equally distressing and demoralizing is the community’s lack of response to this deplorable situation.
Where once entire communities would collectively rally to obtain the release of an enslaved or incarcerated Jew, indifference seems to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the doleful plight of the agunah.
How else do you explain, for example, the seruv list published in The Jewish Press? Some of the names have been on the list for years. That means their wives have been unable to get remarried, nor have children. A waste of so much potential.