Photo Credit: Wikipidia Commons
Postcard illustrating a divorce procedure, Jewish Museum of Switzerland.

“When a man takes a woman in marriage and she doesn’t find favor in his eyes – for he finds a matter of indecency in her – he may write for her a document of divorce; he is to place it in her hand and thus send her away from his household. When she goes out from his house, and she goes and becomes another man’s wife…” (Devarim 24:1-2)

These verses, which appear in this week’s pashah, represent the sole Biblical source on divorce. Despite the passage’s brevity, several principles are clearly laid out: 1) divorce is permissible; 2) the husband must have a reason to divorce his wife; and 3) the man no longer has any control of the woman or her status after the divorce.

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According to the Torah, the man is the active decision-maker in divorce; the woman doesn’t seem to have a say in the matter. Indeed, the Talmud states clearly, “A man who gives a divorce is not like a woman who is divorced. For while a woman may be divorced with her consent as well as without it, a man can give a divorce only with his full consent” (Yevamot 112b)

This state of affairs, however, left the door open to potential abuse. For example, a woman could be cast out of her home penniless by her husband – without her having any say in the matter. Another woman could be desperate to dissolve her marriage but be unable to do so.

Seeking to address the first problem, our sages came up with two solutions approximately 1,000 years apart. First, approximately 2,000 years ago, they introduced the ketubah, which commits the groom to provide all the bride’s needs, both monetary and intimate.

It also forces a man who wishes to divorce his wife to pay her a specified sum of money – with an established minimum, which amounted to one year’s worth of support. This significant payment caused the husband to reconsider a hasty decision to cast off his wife. And if he went ahead with the divorce, at least his wife had financial security while she sought other means of support.

A thousand years later, in the 11th century, Rabbeinu Gershom decreed that a man couldn’t divorce his wife against her will – thus granting women a measure of control over their marital status.

But this control is limited, and women who wish to obtain a divorce remain totally at the mercy of their husbands. In other words, the second problem mentioned above still exists. The husband has total power over his wife’s future since a divorce is not valid unless the husband willingly gives his wife a get.

A woman chained to an unwanted marriages – an agunah – lives in existential angst. She suffers, her children grow up in a most unhealthy framework, her extended family is in agony, and good rabbis wring their hands.

A thousand years have passed since Rabbeinu Gershom issued his decree to stop men from mistreating their wives. It’s time for a new enactment to prevent cruel men from holding their wives hostage.

And, indeed, one has already been advanced. Several decades ago, rabbis in the U.S. composed a halachic prenuptial agreement – approved by the Beth Din of America – and 20 years ago a team of people in Israel, including this author, composed a prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect.” Both these documents make it extremely difficult for a man to refuse his wife a get should she want one.

The highly-respected Rav Zalman Nechmia Goldberg, zt”l, a judge on the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem was involved in the latter text’s composition and subsequently gave his approbation to it. Other leading rabbinic figures who approved of the prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect” include Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, zt”l; Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l; and Rav Nachum Rabinowitz, zt”l.

This halachic prenuptial agreement is egalitarian since a man in Israel can also be a victim of get-refusal. Known as the Heskem L’kavod Hadadi, it has been signed by thousands of couples who want to erase the blight of the agunah problem from Judaism. This halachic prenuptial agreement has saved the lives of a significant number of women and one man whose spouses initially refused to agree to a get.

Every thousand years, a halachic solution has been found to help married women not be taken advantage of. The biggest steps have been taken. Now it’s in the hands of marrying couples. If signing a halachic prenuptial agreement becomes the norm, we can eliminate the agunah problem for good.

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Rachel Levmore (Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University) is a rabbinical court advocate; director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency (iyim.org.il/prenup); member of the Israel State Commission for the Appointment of Dayanim; and author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of Get-refusal.