“Let my people go!” This refrain, introduced by Moshe in Egypt when he appealed to Pharaoh to liberate the Jewish people from bondage, has not only been referenced throughout Jewish history, but has been embraced by multiple peoples and cultures around the world in campaigns against injustice. In our time, I can vividly remember chanting, “let my people go!” as a child, together with thousands of others, as we rallied on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Who would have ever dreamt that today, in the year 2013/5773, among the only people to whom we need to address the demand “let my people go,” are a small group of Jews themselves. Yes, even in our time there remain those shackled and in chains. I am referring to the tragic circumstances of Agunos.
In Talmudic times, the tragic status of Agunah was attained when a woman’s husband went off to war or on a faraway business trip and his whereabouts became unknown, leaving his wife’s status in question thereby preventing her from remarrying. More recently, this horrific reality has been cast upon women electively by their recalcitrant husbands who use the Get (Jewish divorce) as a weapon and tool to extort, manipulate, or just plain torture their wives.
Lest you think this is a rare phenomenon, a 2011 survey of agunos in the U.S. and Canada, co-sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU), Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), identified 462 cases of Agunos between the years 2005 – 2010, most of whom were under 40 years old at the time they were placed in a holding pattern in life. The leadership of ORA confirms that though they have helped over 190 women attain a Get, at any given time they are working on 70 cases and that number is only growing.
For friends, community members, and even Rabbis, it sometimes seems easier to not get involved or take sides in what is usually a deeply emotional and often controversial conflict. However, the great Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has taught us:
“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction. In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred.” (April 12, 1999 speech at The White House as part of the Millennium Lecture Series)
Indifference, apathy or not wanting to get involved are not Jewish concepts, particularly as they relate to those suffering from injustice. In many places the Torah explicitly calls upon us to protect, defend, and support the almanah, the widow. Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of the Ksav V’Kabbalah (Parshas Mishpatim) explains that the Torah doesn’t limit this mitzvah to the widow, but expects it regarding all those who are vulnerable and tormented within our community. He explains that the world “almanah” comes from al-manah, missing a portion. The almanah is simply a symbol of those that are incomplete, missing something in their lives. Our mandate and our mission must be to protect and support them.
It is in this spirit that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the professional organization of over 1,000 Orthodox Rabbis in North America, held a Yom Iyun this week, a day of study regarding the plight of Agunos. The day began with a talk by Rav Herschel Schachter on the Halachic parameters of applying social pressure to encourage a man to give his wife a Get. Rav Schachter serves as the Posek of ORA and has been courageously vocal and instrumental in advocating on behalf of women being held hostage by their husbands.
The second session contained a panel discussion including Rabbi Yonah Reiss, Dean of RIETS, Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, member of the Beth Din of Elizabeth, NJ and Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, Director of the Beth Din of America, regarding “Practical Considerations in Handling Divorce.” These experienced Dayanim (Rabbinic Judges) shared their experience and wisdom regarding at what point a woman is considered an Agunah, when is the appropriate time for a Get to be given, and how to balance the timing of the Get with the civil divorce. Most notably, they reminded us that once it is clear that a marriage will not continue, the giving of the Get in a timely fashion is an ethical imperative and from the Torah’s perspective, the absolutely right thing to do.
The third session was a panel discussion on “The Role of the Rabbi, Applying Communal Pressure.” I was honored to participate in this panel and share my experiences in working with our outstanding community in organizing rallies, utilizing social networking, and excluding those that refuse to grant their wives a Get. Most importantly, I tried to communicate the critical importance of being outspoken and taking advantage of the teachable moments by including our children and teenagers in advocacy and standing up to fight injustice. Even if we can’t always achieve the Get in a timely fashion, the community’s response clearly demonstrates our intolerance for the intolerable and sends a blunt message to all men within the community that withholding a Get is simply not an option. Moreover, the community’s vocal advocacy provides much needed comfort and support for the Agunah, who often otherwise feels alone, insignificant and even invisible.
My fellow panelist was Dean Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, Dean of Students at Columbia Law School and Chair of the Board of ORA. Dean Greenberg-Kobrin shared legal considerations and guidelines for Rabbis and communities involving themselves in Agunah advocacy. She spoke passionately about isolating the Get from the other divorce considerations such as custody and division of assets and not conflating it with parallel disputes or negotiations.
While the first three sessions were for members of the RCA only, the evening session was open to the public. The audience heard from a courageous woman who had been an Agunah before finally receiving her Get with the help of ORA. Following her presentation, Dr. David Pelcovitz, a prominent psychologist and professor at the Azrieli School of Yeshiva University, shared research results on the psychological impact on Agunos, as well as the impact on their children who often suffer for years to come. Dr. Pelcovitz shared suggestions for how Rabbinic and community support can relieve the suffering and anguish in very real and measurable ways. The next presenter was Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the Executive Director of ORA. He described the work of ORA and delineated a number of ways ordinary citizens could get involved in advocacy on behalf of Agunos. Lastly, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Rabbi of Ahavath Torah in Englewood, NJ and President of the RCA offered our organization’s vision for improving Rabbinic efforts on this critically important issue.
We can and must do absolutely all that we can within normative halacha to put an end to the plight of Agunas and to prevent them from ever arising again. The Yom Iyun produced a number of initiatives towards that end that we intend to bring to our membership in a timely fashion:
Firstly, the RCA will continue to urge all of its members to refuse to officiate at weddings unless the Beth Din of America Halachic Prenup** is signed. Though the RCA is unable to force every member to use this particular document, we will suggest that every member be obligated to use a halachic prenuptial that would be acceptable to them, even if it simply delineates which Rabbinical Court the couple would turn to, should the need arise. The Beth Din of America reports that in every single dispute they have adjudicated between a couple that has irreconcilable differences and seeks divorce, if the Beth Din of America halachic prenuptial agreement was signed, the Get was delivered. Moreover, as recently as this February, an American Civil Court upheld the terms of the Beth Din of America Halachic Prenup, affirming the potency that it contains to solve this crisis, if only every single couple would sign one. ORA maintains that even a minimal prenuptial agreement will help in the vast majority of cases.
The RCA intends on establishing a network of Rabbis designated by region, who will serve as a resource and source of support for any Agunah who reaches out for their help, whether they are member of their community or not.
RCA members will be encouraged to place ORA’s literature in their Shuls and to promote ORA’s new campaign, “Friends don’t let friends get married without a halachic pre-nup.”
The RCA will encourage its members to host post-nuptial events in which already married couples who didn’t use a prenup are invited to sign halachic post-nuptials and thereby contribute to a culture in which all married couples from newlyweds to octogenarians have a halachic prenup in place.
The RCA will encourage its members to revisit their Shul’s bylaws and insert language that would not allow a man who has been instructed by a Beis Din to give his wife a Get and refuses to comply, to be a member or receive an honor.
Many wonder, some out loud and others to themselves, why can’t Rabbis simply create a solution to this problem? Do Rabbis not have the will to find a halachic way for women to go free? It is important to understand that those that who don’t embrace more radical halachic approaches to solve this issue are no less sympathetic, caring, or concerned for the plight of Agunos. The laws of personal status in general, and divorce in particular, are detailed and complex. Pushing a position rejected by the majority of the Torah community will only further isolate the woman who relies on it, instead of freeing her in a universally recognized fashion that will allow her to remarry in a manner that all will accept.
I don’t believe any of us can claim to understand why God would design His laws in such a way that allows a man to chain his wife in this cruel fashion. But it seems to me that rather than be paralyzed by our incomprehension or devote energy to solutions that will not gain traction broadly, let’s apply all of our focus to solutions that we believe will work effectively, each and every time.
I am proud to belong to the RCA, an organization that has placed the issue of Agunos on its lists of priorities. With the leadership of our members and the partnership of our communities, we can collectively stand up and say “let my people go,” thereby achieving the freedom that everybody deserves.
**See www.theprenup.org Each spouse agrees to appear before a panel of Jewish law judges (dayanim) arranged by the Beth Din of America, if the other spouse demands it, and to abide by the decision of the Beth Din with respect to the get. If the couple separates, the Jewish law obligation of the husband to support his wife is formalized, so that he is obligated to pay $150 per day (indexed to inflation), from the date he receives notice from her of her intention to collect that sum, until the date a Jewish divorce is obtained. This support obligation ends if the wife fails to appear at the Beth Din of America or to abide by a decision of the Beth Din of America.
Each of these provisions is important to ensure that a get is given by the husband to his wife in a timely manner following the functional end of a marriage. The first obligation grants authority to the rabbinical court to oversee the get process. The second obligation provides an incentive for the husband to abide by decisions of the rabbinical court, and give a get to his wife once the marriage is over and there is no hope of reconciliation.