I have heard from multiple victims of get-refusal that a rabbi had promised them, “Don’t worry, if it ever happens, I’ll help you.” But the truth is, once a man refuses to give his wife a get, a rabbi cannot help. For the power to give a get lies in the hands of the husband – not a beis din.
Even if a respected beis din issues a ruling that a husband is obligated to give his wife a get, the marriage is not dissolved. Rabbis and dayanim do not have the authority to end a marriage by decree. Only the two spouses – by giving and accepting a get – can change their status from married to divorced.
Even if a beis din rules that coercion is necessary, no physical coercion can be used in today’s day and age. If someone were to use physical force to induce a get-refuser to acquiesce, he would be arrested for assault and battery. Thus, no beis din today acts as Maimonides instructed and whips a man until he agrees to give a get.
In short, a husband not only holds power over his wife; he holds more power than a beis din! Add that fact to the general breakdown of authority in society – along with the phenomenon that even very Orthodox men do not hearken to particular rabbinic authorities unless it is convenient for them to do so – and the result is that the husband alone decides when, and under what conditions, he will free his wife – if at all.
International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther – March 20 this year – gives us the opportunity to think about this very difficult situation. We are not totally helpless. Even if we cannot always resolve existing agunah cases, we can prevent others from occurring. Think of it like the polio vaccine. Doctors have not found a cure for polio, but since almost everyone is immunized with the polio vaccine, the disease no longer manifests itself.
A halachic prenuptial agreement is the equivalent of a polio vaccine. If every chassan and kallah signs one before they stand under the chuppah, get-refusal – like polio – will disappear. This document gives a beis din a tool to wield against a recalcitrant husband should get-refusal arise in the future. By signing it, the husband obligates himself to give his wife a certain amount of monthly support if she asks for a get and he does not grant it in a timely manner. This financial obligation acts as a motivator to give a get.
There are halakhic prenuptial agreements that have been tried and tested with 100 percent success rates. In the United States, there is the Binding Arbitration Agreement of the Beth Din of America (theprenup.org), and in Israel, there is the Agreement for Mutual Respect (iyim.org.il/prenup).
You are responsible for yourself and your family. No one is going to do this for you. Your rabbi may recommend the signing of a prenuptial agreement or he may not wish to discuss it, but you are the one who will ultimately have to bear the tremendous pain, G-d forbid, if someone in your family becomes the victim of get-refusal.
It is your responsibility to make sure that never happens. And it is the responsibility of all of us to see to it that a halachic prenuptial agreement is signed before every Jewish wedding.