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Between Adon Olam and Agunot

July 31, 2013 – 11:26 am7 Comments

By Elana Sztokman

chain2When my husband, Jacob, and I first met 25 years ago picking peaches on kibbutz, we were surprised at how much we had in common. After all, I had spent my entire life in Brooklyn, New York, and he was from Melbourne, Australia – how much further apart could we be? For me, Australia meant Olivia Newton John, Crocodile Dundee and koalas, and for Jacob, the most notable American was the Lubavicher rebbe, zatza”l, such a good yeshiva boy that he was at the time. We were almost oddities to one another, which perhaps contributed to the charm of our relationship. But when one day we discovered that we knew the same tune to Adon Olam, something clicked.

It was this captivating realization, that despite an oceanic divide – pre-Internet, pre-cellphones, Youtube, Facebook, texting and all the other digital tools that today bridge cultural gaps and form a global conversation – we shared something deep and historic. The fact that we sang the same Hebrew songs, that our families served similar foods on Jewish holidays, and that our childhoods were dotted with the same transmission of meaningful moments, was enormously powerful.  We had never met. Our lives had not crossed until then. And yet, it was as if our souls had been tied together for a very long time.

I have been reflecting on this Jewish connectivity, those elements of our culture that transcend specific locations and social settings. It is in many ways what makes our heritage so beautiful and bountiful. But the same weight of eternity can also be stultifying. While an image of eternal connection helps builds meaning, the accompanying sense of unwavering commitment to an ephemeral and perhaps even fictional absolute truth can also hold us back. It can keep us hanging on to ideas or practices that are no longer helpful or healthy, hanging on out of fear rather than out of a sense of divine vision.

I have been thinking about this in particular around the issue of agunot, literally “chained women”, women locked in unwanted marriages due to the reluctance of husbands to let them go and the reluctance of rabbinic judges to apply halakhic solutions to free them. On some level, the issue of agunot is like the tune to Adom Olam. In its painful ubiquity, it inexplicably characterizes religious life around the world. Where there is an Orthodox community, we find shuls, kosher butchers, mikvehs, and agunot. It is one of the most tragic statements about religious life today. That the Orthodox community has failed to eliminate this horrific and bring an end to the needless suffering of countless women is a stain upon all of us.Somehow, it seems, we have all been hanging on to the wrong thing.

Last month, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization AT NYU CO-convened the first ever Agunah Summit, a gathering of rabbinic, academic, and community leaders from across the Jewish world to consider the legitimate use and broader application of halakhic solutions to the problem. Speakers including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi David Bigman and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, scholars Alan Deshowitz, Gerald Blidstein, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Joseph Weiler and Rachel Levmore, Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livni, Justice (ret.) Dorit Beinisch, and many others, explored the use of systemic solutions such as halakhic annulment. Rabbi Riskin advocated passionately for greater use of these halakhic tools, and Rabbi Lopatin proposed compiling a list of 100 rabbis who would be willing to accept these solutions and to conduct marriage ceremonies for freed agunot. Over 250 communal leaders and activists filled the room, expressing a powerful support for the idea that it is time for the community to resolve this problem once and for all.  For many attendees, the Summit signaled a moment of hope, perhaps a turning point, in this story of endless suffering.

I hope the Australian Jewish community will take part in this broader movement to begin exploring and advocating for the use of systemic solutions to resolve this problem. By engaging in this process along with rabbis and leaders from  North America, Israel, and more, we can work on building a vision for a globally cohesive Jewish community, one that is committed both to the preservation of tradition and to the elimination of needless human suffering. That would be a real vision of an am kadosh, a holy people.

Caulfield Hebrew Congregation is holding an informal panel discussion on the issue of agunot on Sunday, August 4 at 8:00pm.

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