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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘prenuptial agreements’

Getting Serious About Get-Refusal

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

It’s human nature to hide our heads in the sand. That may be because we are mostly optimistic. We believe everything will be all right even when we know we are taking a chance.

On the flip side, it’s emotionally very difficult to admit we have a problem. We are worried about how others will regard us. Moreover, addressing a problem entails gathering strength to go about solving it. It’s so much easier to hide our heads in the sand.

About ten years ago, at a rabbinic convention in Israel, I was introduced to a well-known American Orthodox rabbi as a to’enet rabbanit – rabbinical court advocate. The rav politely asked me what I do. I briefly explained how I work with dayanim in Israeli batei din on cases of Get-refusal they have difficulty resolving. I stressed my focus on prenuptial agreements to prevent the agunah problem from arising in the first place, through the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel.

“Oh, I know all about prenups” the rabbi replied. “My daughter just got married but I didn’t tell her to sign one. We don’t need these things.”

This rav, one of the most effective leaders in the American Orthodox world, did not recognize the very real agunah problem in his community. In fact, I have received cries for help (even though I am in Israel) from women who belong to every manner of Orthodox community in the U.S., from chassidishe and haredi to Modern Orthodox and everything in between.

Truth be told, it is difficult for a rav to admit publicly to a problem of Get-refusal in his community when no one is admitting it in the other communities. It is more comforting to imagine that should an agunah case arise, the community will take care of it. However, individuals who begin to tread the path of a me’agen are becoming more and more resistant to communal pressure or even rabbinic influence.

By recognizing the potential for the problem and arranging the signing of prenuptial agreements for its prevention, communal and rabbinic influence can be restored. The problem needs to be prevented from taking root in each individual case before it is too late.

Nevertheless, the practice is to hope for the best, rationalizing the agunah problem with statistics. “What,” we think, “are the chances of this happening to me or to my daughter?”

And yet our communities have overcome deep-seated reluctance in order to deal with other widespread problems. To cut down on the number of cases of genetic disease afflicting the Orthodox community, for example, practical yet dignified solutions were found. The community needed to find a way to assist individuals on a communal level and so now many Orthodox educational institutions routinely bring professionals into twelfth-grade classes to administer blood tests.

In this manner, the individual understands the implicit stamp of approval by the rabbanim and the fear of “what will others think?” is erased, since all are working toward the prevention of the problem.

Similarly, the leadership of each of the various Orthodox communities can make practical arrangements for prenup education with every educational institution – high school, yeshiva gedolah, seminary or college.

A service should be provided whereby every student, man or woman, who becomes engaged is called in. The school’s rabbi or counselor can present the couple with a halachic prenuptial agreement together with an explanation, and arrange for notarization services in the school’s office. In this manner the community will quickly understand that all are expected to sign a prenuptial agreement. It will become “automatic” – one of the things you have to arrange before you get married.

Even those who marry later, while no longer under the aegis of educational institutions, will remember to sign a prenuptial agreement since it will have become a standard part of the shidduch process.

Twenty-one rabbanim of one of Americas’ Orthodox communities – roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University – recently signed a (second) kol koreh calling on all rabbis and the Orthodox community to promote the standard use of a halachic prenuptial agreement. They were spurred to do so by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. There are those who may feel YU or ORA is not their derech, but that does not relieve them of the responsibility to address the agunah problem in their own communities.

Will Your Children Sign a Halachic Prenuptial Agreement?

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Did you know that in the United States, the probability of a first marriage ending in divorce is between 40%-50%, while in the United Kingdom, one in every three marriages that took place between 1995 and 2010 ended in divorce? In Israel the divorce rate is at around one third. Unfortunately, these figures have only grown in recent years. Therefore, when a couple gets married, the possibility of a future divorce is sadly neither impossible nor unrealistic.

With this in mind, when I recently wished a friend “Mazal Tov” on his daughter’s engagement, I broached the issue of prenuptial agreements in accordance with Jewish law. Though I discuss the topic all the time (not only with my kids, letting them know it’s a requirement as far as I’m concerned), I had never tried to encourage a rabbi, let alone a rosh yeshiva, of its importance. I was so relieved when my friend, a rosh yeshiva, turned to me and said, “Of course they’re signing one. People who don’t sign halachic prenuptial agreements are stupid.” I wish all my conversations on the subject were so easy, but the halachic prenup has not yet been accepted in all circles.

The purpose of the specific document, which must be done in accordance with Jewish law, is to make sure that no one person can blackmail another in order to receive a get, a Jewish divorce decree. Unfortunately, I have seen cases of this type of blackmail in my capacity as a financial advisor, so I know it happens. Such stories can be heartbreaking, with one side caught in limbo sometimes for many years.

So if you have a child getting married, make sure that he or she has a halachic prenuptial agreement signed well before getting to the chuppa. Even if your kids are too young to be in the dating world, start talking to them about it now, so it becomes just one more thing to check-off on the wedding to-do list.

For details on a halachic prenuptial agreement in Israel go to www.youngisraelrabbis.org.il/prenup.htm and in America go to www.theprenup.org/prenupforms.html.

Mazal tov, and may the bride and groom live happily ever after!

Demonstrations And Remonstrations On Agunah Day

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Those who are subjected to emotional suffering tend to be kept out of society’s line of sight. All the more so when society is either the cause of the suffering or can alleviate it and does not do so.

On the individual level, suffering takes up all of one’s energy, attempts to escape it consume one’s financial resources, and all of one’s time is expended in its alleviation. As a result, it is easy for the average person not to notice the suffering or to ignore it.

Fortunately, tools have been developed that serve as reminders that stir our conscience. One such tool is the determination of particular calendar days to raise awareness of a specific phenomenon. This is the purpose of International Agunah Day.

Ta’anit Esther, which falls on March 7 this year, has been set aside to remind us that there are women suffering in our midst as their Jewish husbands refuse to free them from the bonds of marriage despite the marriage’s utter breakdown. In doing so, the husband creates the agunah – the victim of get-refusal.

Not much has been done since last year’s Agunah Day to resolve the agunah problem. If anything, the problem has grown more acute – witness the weekly seruv listings on the pages of The Jewish Press. The refusal of Jewish men to grant Jewish women a get has been reported on the pages of various Jewish-American and Israeli publications and, even more devastating for Jewish society, the general media, both mainstream and social: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, YouTube, Facebook, etc.

The standing of Jews is weakened every time those who aren’t Jewish read, see or hear about the inability of a grown woman to exercise her human right to leave a failed marriage. Her inability is an expression of the inability of the greater Jewish society – laypersons and rabbis alike – because it is due to the quiet acceptance of her suffering. The inaction in our communities and in our rabbinic establishment is more than a reflection of our ignoring the problem. It is actually a cause of the problem.

Get-refusal is a particularly insidious form of domestic abuse, since the abuser justifies his actions to himself. After he has totally convinced himself he is acting in accordance with societal mores it is easy for him to continue in his recalcitrance. As it is, the community around him is wont to “keep out of other people’s private affairs” and will conveniently ignore the suffering caused to the agunah, thus adding to it.

When rabbis do get involved and issue a ruling that the man has made his wife into an agunah, it may have been so long in coming that the husband’s obstinacy has been buttressed and reinforced by society’s inaction up to that point.

Fortunately, not all Orthodox Jews are complacent in this simplistic ignoring of the agunah problem. For example, the Yeshiva University-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot in the United States and the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel have extended help in many forms to many agunot, working to ease the women’s pain and bring about a resolution. Indeed ORA has organized numerous demonstrations over the past few years, held in protest of recalcitrant husbands’ abuse of power.

It is interesting to note that the clear majority of protestors in the earlier demonstrations were Modern Orthodox, with “yeshivish” individuals joining later on. The crying out against abuse of agunot coupled with the relative lack of public disapproval gives the impression that the more stringent a community in its adherence to kashrut, Torah study and dress code, the more lax it is in its adherence to two crucial mitzvot: lo ta’amod al dam rey’echa and hocheyach tochiach et amitecha.

In the first instance, one is instructed by Torah law not to stand idly by when one’s fellow Jew is suffering, when that person is in need of help, when one’s support can make the difference. The latter mitzvah makes it incumbent on the God-fearing Jew to remonstrate one who is behaving improperly and transgressing a commandment. The agunah and the get-refuser, respectively, are prime examples of these categories. Where is the community’s stringency in obeying these two mitzvot? Where are the societal demonstrations of zero tolerance for any instance of get-refusal?

The Rabbinical Council of America resolved in 1994 “that every member of the Rabbinical Council of America will utilize prenuptial agreements, which will aid in our community’s efforts to guarantee that the get will not be used as a negotiating tool in divorce procedures. ” How many other sectors of Orthodox Jewry have made a similar declaration?

Any society is judged by how it treats its weak and suffering. Just read the words of our prophets. For Jews, that is the measure of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. Tragically, the get-refuser and the society that turns a blind eye to his actions choose to ignore that responsibility. For the desecration of God’s name is not caused only by the get-refuser himself. The entire Orthodox Jewish community is responsible.

Unchaining The Agunah Problem

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

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.

Standing Idly By

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

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.

The Torah warns us twelve times to have special consideration towards the orphan and the widow – yatom v’almanah. The first such commandment appears in Shemot 22,21: “Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict.” It is followed directly by a description of the consequences to society in its entirety if there is affliction. It is frightening to print in a newspaper column; readers will have to refer to the original.

Rashi clarifies that in essence we are warned not to cause suffering to any individual: “This is the law for all people, here the text spoke in accordance with present reality, for they [widows and orphans] are weak of strength and it is common to find them afflicted.” Or as the Soncino Edition (J.H. Hertz, 1962) commentary states: “Who are bereft of their human protector and destitute of the physical force to defend their rights.” Ibn Ezra adds: “For all who sees one who afflicts an orphan or widow and does not come to their aid, he is also considered to be an afflictor.” Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch enlightens us further: “The widow has lost her mouth in her husband, has nobody to speak for her any longer. The orphan…[suffers from the] misuse his weakness and lack of protection…even rich widows and orphans are easier to be taken advantage of and misused, than other people… in society, amongst people…they are bereft of anybody to stand up for them, to protect them, guide and advise them, and so are exposed to be wronged and humiliated. Hence, in their case the Torah addresses primarily the members of the community in the plural ‘thou shalt not misuse their weakness or make them feel the weakness of their position.’”

Rashi related the mitzvah to reality. The reality today is that there is another individual who has lost her support, has suffered the abuse of her rights and who has no man to serve as her pillar of support. That is the modern-day agunah—the victim of Get-refusal. In fact, the very man upon whom the agunah originally depended to honor her and act as her protector turns against her and abuses his power over her.

There is one agunah today in the United States who is both orphaned of her father and whose husband is refusing (as of the time of this printing) to give her a get. This is Tamar Epstein. Lest one think that this is a problem solely for the rabbis and not for the layperson — the rabbis have already done their utmost to convince Mr. Aharon Friedman to give Ms. Epstein a get, to no avail. In fact not only did the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada issue an Declaration of Contempt (ktav seiruv – see page F1 in this week’s newspaper) against Mr. Friedman, the rabbinic judges included a plea directed to all: “Any person who has the ability or opportunity to influence him to free Tamar Epstein from the chains of her agunah status is obligated to do so and doing so will indeed be the fulfillment of a great mitzvah.”

Each and every reader of these words is now aware of a biblical commandment (mitzvah d’oraita) and a rabbinic-ordained commandment (mitzvah d’rabbanan) to help Tamar Epstein achieve her get. Moreover, most readers recite every Tuesday at the close of the morning prayers (shacharit): “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy…” Someone has to help Tamar Epstein find relief from the affliction she is suffering. Will you heed the words you yourself recite in prayer? Will you take the mitzvah of helping Tamar to heart? How can you help deliver the get to her hand? It is incumbent upon each and every one in the Orthodox community to consider how he or she can help. It is not easy for readers sitting in the comfort of their own home to actually take action. For that reason an additional commandment was necessary to spell out that one may not stand by when a fellow Jew is in a position of need. It is human nature to need that extra push in order to have the will to help.  Now that you know, you cannot stand idly by.

Editor’s Note:  A protest rally against Mr. Aharon Friedman’s recalcitrance has been organized by ORA and will be held on Sunday, December 4th, 1 PM at 1131 University Blvd., Silver Spring, Md.

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.

 

Recognizing Shame On International Agunah Day

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Editor’s Note: International Agunah Day is marked yearly on Ta’anit Esther, which falls this year on Thursday, March 17.

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.

At the turn of the 21st century the rabbinical courts in Israel realized the potential of the Internet and began listing the names, photos and descriptions of the most extreme cases of get-refusers under the title “Most Wanted” (www.rbc.gov.il). Shortly thereafter, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (www.getora.com) began to prominently display those who have had seiruvim issued against them, in a measure intended to convince recalcitrant husbands to release their wives.

Yet the shameful list grows along with the unprecedented flow of information. The situation is so severe that the agunah problem has been increasingly visible in the media, both general and Jewish.

The Washington Post (Feb. 5, 2006 about Sarah and Sam Rosenbloom), the Wall Street Journal (Aug 24, 2007 about Susan Rosenfeld and Ariel Hacohen), YouTube (Dec. 19, 2010 about Tamar Epstein and Aharon Friedman) and The New York Times (Jan 3, 2011, Epstein and Freidman) have examined the supposed “shaming” of the get-refusers. In doing so, however, these secular media outlets also exposed the shame of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Our community prides itself on the morality inherent in our laws and customs. The wisdom of our rabbis is drawn upon by national committees dealing with ethical questions such as abortion and organ transplants. We lift our communal head high when one of our members is recognized by the world at large for a noteworthy contribution.

Moreover, the Orthodox world touts its stable family units where the woman is valued and praised every Friday night. How tragic is it, then, that the same community demonstrates by its actions – or rather its inaction – that a woman is not truly valued? She is not considered worthy or capable of making the weighty decision to exit a dead marriage – certainly not enough that the wisdom of the rabbis should be applied to help her extricate herself from an untenable situation.

On the surface, we have a clash between precepts of democracy and Jewish law. It is a biblical injunction, d’oraita, that a man must give his wife a get willingly in order for the divorce to take place. So, according to Torah law, a man can divorce his wife while a woman cannot divorce her husband. (According to rabbinic law a man cannot divorce his wife without her agreement as well, though there is an “escape clause” of heter me’ah rabbanim.) However, this premise is not being called into question here. It is the deeper and more complex dimension of the role of the rabbis that is being addressed in the discussions of the press.

At its core, the problem is not that of the man having power over the woman – it is of the man having power over the rabbis.

While rabbis and community leaders at the time of the Forward’s gallery of vanished husbands truly believed they were doing all they could to end the suffering of agunot by searching for the wayward husbands, that level of effort does not suffice today. The rabbis must recognize that there are great dangers in the present situation, where a rabbinical court is dependent on a recalcitrant husband to put its ruling into effect.

There are dangers to the wife; to the joint children who need co-parenting; to her future never-to-be born children or even future children from another man while an agunah; and, on a communal level, to the very fabric of the Orthodox Jewish community where rabbis are expected to be the ultimate leaders. Because rabbis are allowing individual men to refuse to heed their rulings. And it is there for the world to see.

There are halachic processes for the rabbis to take back their authority. For example, the Rabbinical Council of America demands that each couple marrying under its auspices sign the prenuptial agreement of the Beth Din of America designed to prevent get-refusal. But where are the rabbis of other communities? Why is there not a wall-to-wall rabbinical coalition dealing with the problem of get-refusal? Where is the standardized communal obligation to sign a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal?

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/recognizing-shame-on-international-agunah-day/2011/03/09/

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