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Pidyon Shevuyim: Redeeming The Agunah


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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.

Why have these men been able to keep their spouses tethered to a sham marriage for so long, cementing them to an unbearable reality where life passes them by. And they are cementing themselves as well – a mutually destructive situation.

Getting involved in someone’s domestic dispute is not a pleasant prospect. It is considered prudent to “mind your own business” and “see not, hear not, speak not.” Everyone has his or her own problems.

But we must try. Ours is a religion based on rachmanut and responsibility to others. It revolves around treating people the way you would want to be treated, with the logical extension being that it is incumbent on everyone to help others be treated the way you would want to be.

Since you would not want to be trapped in a marital nightmare, unable to remarry and build or increase your family; since you would be devastated if your daughter, sister etc. were in this cruel situation for months and potentially years – you need to do what you can to alleviate an agunah’s misery.

Nothing heroic is required, just concern and some time and effort, it could be as simple as approaching the husband -he might be a former classmate, a chevrusha, a relative, someone you do business with. Engage him in dialogue, point out how it is in the community’s best interest, and his, – that he emancipates his wife and allow both to get on with their lives.

Each woman who is prevented from having children – or more children – is a victory for Amalek. Hitler tried to wipe out every Jew on this planet. He succeeded in destroying over six million, and preventing the existence of millions of others. We all know Holocaust survivors who have left dozens, even hundreds of descendants. We are many of them.

Each stubborn husband who prevents a future marriage and future children unwittingly is in league with our enemies who wish to annihilate the Jewish people.

This must be emphasized over and over again. He is not just punishing his wife – he is punishing all Yidden. He is helping in our decimation.

I know that in some cases the wife is the problem: she is unreasonable, punitive and conniving, either refusing to allow her husband to have access to the children; claiming falsely that he did unspeakable things to her or the children, or demanding more than a reasonable share of their assets. For him, withholding the get is his only leverage in getting what is fair. In such situations it is crucial that both be approached and encouraged to go for divorce mediation or therapy, where they can possibly resolve such thorny issues as custody, visitation, support and the division of assets, a resolution that hopefully will result in a mutual giving and acceptance of a get.

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