What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the Confederacy prevailed in the Civil War? What if there had never been a Protestant Reformation? If the British Empire still spanned the globe? These seemingly outlandish scenarios are all premises of “alternative history” novels. These stories ponder what the results might have been if critical turning points in world history had gone in a different direction. What would the world be like if those things had happened? More importantly, what would we be like?
The Passover Haggadah presents its own alternative history scenario. “V’ilu lo hotzi HaKadosh Baruch Hu et avoteinu mimitzrayim, harei anu v’banenu v’banei banenu meshubadim hayinu l’Paro b’mitzrayim – And if the Holy One had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
This seemingly innocuous line in the Haggadah makes a bold – and difficult to believe – assertion. Yes, the Exodus brought us out of Egypt, from slavery into freedom. But without the events we commemorate on Pesach, would we really have continued to serve as slaves, typing away in tiny cubicles beneath looming pyramids, as depicted in Jordan Gorfinkel’s graphic novel Haggadah? Wouldn’t the collapse of the Egyptian empire and the larger arc of world history have facilitated our freedom if the ten plagues hadn’t?
The commentaries answer this question by clarifying what we mean by the concept of freedom itself. Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, of Chabad of Cary, N.C., writes that there are two components to the Exodus: the “physical/geographical departure” and the “mental/psychological transformation” (see “Would We Still Be Slaves in Egypt?” on Chabad.org). It was not enough to physically exit the borders of Egypt; in order to be truly free the Jewish people would have to undergo a shift in their very identity.
We see this same dynamic in modern life, when a person may attempt to overcome a difficult challenge or a string of bad luck by picking up and moving. However, when we simply shift locations without making the necessary changes within, our problems will only continue to plague us. As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
The Exodus narrative has never been only a story about a major move, or even a release from the shackles of slavery. The Haggadah takes us through the process of internal transformation, as a ragtag, despondent group of slaves becomes an independent nation with an identity so strong we still carry it forward today. The Haggadah provides a powerful model of what it takes to transform, in a meaningful and lasting way.
As the CEO of ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, I spend my days focused on helping agunot and creating the larger changes needed to impact the issue of get refusal. And what I have found is that while there are important tools available to help resolve agunah cases, holding rallies, sharing case flyers on social media and hiring private investigators to track missing recalcitrant spouses are not enough. In order to address get refusal for the long term, we will need to change our culture.
Let me tell you what I mean by that. When our organization posts information about a get refuser on our website or social media, we know that a portion of the responses we receive will all say the same thing. “You don’t understand,” they will argue, “You have this case wrong! He is such a nice guy. And she is so, so evil. Get refusal isn’t good, but this case is different!”
In these situations, no matter how many explanations we provide, no matter how thorough our process for taking a case public is, it will never be enough – because if someone fundamentally believes that get refusal is an acceptable choice in “necessary” circumstances, then the battle has already been lost.
Too often, we approach get refusal cases with equivocation.
“You don’t know the whole story.”
“Here, it’s justified.”
But what we fail to realize is that allowing get refusal for one allows it for all – once we open that door, every get refuser will walk through it. It is only by setting a cultural expectation that “here, we don’t play games with the get – no matter what” can we interrupt this dangerous cycle.
Halachic Prenuptial Agreements are yet another critical vehicle for social change. Signing a prenup not only protects the individual couple involved but also helps cement a larger cultural message – that get refusal is not welcome here, in this home, in this shul, in this community. And we have seen firsthand that when prenup signing becomes normative in a neighborhood, with rabbis unwilling to officiate at weddings without a prenup and parents refusing to fund the festivities unless couples take this step, instances of agunot go way, way down. Abuse happens everywhere – but get refusal doesn’t have to.
Signing a prenup also indicates a deeper cultural message, an indication of what relationships should really be about. When you sign a prenup, you are essentially saying, “I love you and I want you to be treated with respect, no matter what.” In order to foster a generation with happy, healthy and lasting marriages, we want to make sure these themes of consideration and respect are built into relationships from the very start. Because get refusal cases don’t magically appear out of thin air; they take root back in the dating and marriage process. Making space for these important conversations is a crucial piece of the cultural work we need to do.
The Haggadah shows us that you can easily take the people out of Egypt, but taking Egypt out of the people will be much harder work. Similarly, ending the suffering of agunot will require real, hard change. But by doing the work to build a healthier community, we will be able to ensure true freedom, for every one of us.
The work of transformation is difficult – but the results will be worth it.